In America, we participate in a holiday morally composed of the idea we’re to be grateful and collectively celebrate together in the name of gratitude.
In our family, “what are you grateful for?” is a question my three-year-old asks unprovoked because it’s as common as “how was your day?” in our conversations. When he asks, he’ll wait in silence for the answer and go on to tell me what he’s grateful for. Usually he aggro-cute points up at me and screams “you”!
My seven-year-old used to leave every situation she loved in tears that she had to leave it. As a parent, that’s frustrating to the max. And draining. You spent all your time holding space for the thing they love, and now it’s time to go and they’re upset, and you’re drained, and now not only did they get their thing and your time was wasted, you’re upset.
But I’d teach her that “leaving” meant the next great thing would come. That her nervous system was just too stimulated to not stay that way upon leaving, despite the stimulation being gone.
Most parents would call this child “ungrateful.”
But honestly, she’s the most grateful kid I know. I mean, her words mean less than how her excitement radiates from her heart when she celebrates each crayon in her hand like it’s a firework on the fourth of july. But she’s also so grateful that she needs time to mourn transition between her joy in one place to her joy in another.
I saw a father in these shoes the other day, leaving the same event as we were. His two kids were following behind as he faster-than-their-little-bodies-could walked to the car. His son was sobbing. I know that sob.
The guy in military pants and a huge jacket went from yelling, “Oh! I bring you here and this is what you do! You’re so ungrateful!” to screaming in the kids’ face, “Shut up! You’re never coming here again!” and slammed the car door.
That feeling of knowing chaos is going on inside of a closed container that looks silent from the outside but inside everyone is bleeding out and screaming for help but no one can hear is a challenging one for me.
It’s basically what my daughter is asked to go through as she contains herself, despite her inner chaos, as she gets better at making cognitive associations with “whatever comes next will be just as good.”
It’s what God must feel feeling Earth, or astronauts as they look, knowing someone down there just suffered greater loss than they can imagine, and yet here…on the outside, everything is still.
The outer silence has its own awareness of the inner screaming, which is a feeling that haunted me for days after he slammed that door in his kids’ face.
I wish there was something I could do other than wish them all love. I know what it’s like to be that guy in my mind and that’s why I practice containing him so my kids don’t have to.
One of those practices is…daily…hourly…momentary…gratitude.
In this man’s case, if he practiced being grateful instead of demanding it of his son, he’d be in a nervous system that could hold space for his son’s experience (that he was taking personally).
His son was grateful; that’s why he was crying. He didn’t have a parent reflect to him that “leaving things we love is really hard for all of us and it’s normal to feel disappointed and the next thing may be just as good.”
He had a great time and then he had a man twice his size screaming at him and telling him it’s never happening again because he’s ungrateful for it.
He was grateful. And disappointed to want more of it and not get it.
But what he left with, I’m sure, is one memory out of all of it. And when he’s older he won’t remember the words, but he’ll remember the gust of his father’s density flying at him as he screams and slams the door in his face as he sobs, wanting nothing at all more than a hug while he cries out his loss.
A loss he was so grateful to gain, he’s struggling with letting it go.
So thanks is for giving. But most people in America give for the thanks.
You know who they are. Those people who give not for giving, but to test you on your personhood side-eye demanding a pinning thanks. Their giving is about them, getting a thanks, not about being thankful to give.
That night, the only difference between that man and I, after years of doing painfully patient things to not unleash him from my own self, is that I was there, thankful to give.
My kids’ gratitude for life is owed, yes, but to life, not to me.
He wanted a thanks, and him not getting it cost them all a memory that had he been able to stay self-regulated through his child’s dis-regulation of losing the thing he was grateful for, no doubt in 10 years, tonight would’ve been a teaching memory felt in warmth, but what it was was a trauma memory in the freezing cold.
I want to be on the side of thanks and give from that place. I don’t want to be on the side of giving—to get a thanks, place.
Better memories are created of it, trust me.
I’ll show my kids how not by making Thanksgiving a holiday, but from the heart, making it our every day.
What are you grateful for, every day?