In my world, gratitude is standard fare at Thanksgiving, along with the chestnuts and prunes and sweet potatoes smothered with toasted marshmallows. It's a nice antidote to the vicissitudes of daily family life, which is rife with difficult topics. Boy, don't I know that, as I catalogue my own list of what I'm grateful for, with the end of my standoff with my homophobic father near the top of the list. But more of that in a minute...
My kids shrink from the annual dinner tradition of reciting three things they're grateful for, but they participate nonetheless. If nothing else, it makes them think for a moment about how they've been aided along the way to enjoy the lives they are now living.
I imagine they think it's quite uncool to acknowledge gratitude. After all, who wants to admit all they've accomplished isn't all about them? Maybe I would have behaved the same way when I was their age, but the topic never came up.
I wish it had, because showing appreciation and saying thank you are acts of transformation. People change before your eyes when you take a moment to acknowledge how they've affected you in a positive way. Watch their facial expressions soften, listen to their voices change, maybe get a tiny bit husky with emotion that they normally stuff down. You can tell they feel good.
I love making people I care for feel good, if only for a few moments. Not in a fake way, obviously; I would never advocate saying something inauthentic. I've also noticed that saying thank you can change you. I feel my emotions rearrange themselves: any frustration or anger that's been hanging around vanishes; my sense of connection steps into the center and from that radiates a sense of contentment. Dare I say I feel happier, accepted, and accepting?
It's a short hop from gratitude to grace. Do you know about the practice of grace? That's another one that I love, but, for me, it's a more challenging one.
I only learned about grace about three years ago. I wish I had learned about it earlier, although I probably wasn't ready for the lesson, so deeply committed I was to harboring grudges and being righteously right, despite the personal cost of maintaining my position, whatever it might be in any given moment or argument.
Grace is the art of loving someone at their least lovable moments. It is based on the premise that we are all deeply flawed; we cannot help ourselves from behaving poorly. That does not mean excusing or justifying bad behavior. It means understanding the reality that the waters we all swim in are frigid and treacherous in places that we are poorly suited to traverse, and yet must. Just as others are flawed, so am I. I may bear my disfigurements in unique places, but they exist nonetheless, despite my dedication to identifying and healing my own damage.
I have battled my father for years about homosexuality. From a different era, with his own beliefs, he did not lightly accept my coming out at age 40. I remember dropping the letter addressed to him, my confessional coming out, in the mail, going out to lunch with a dear friend, and realizing there was no turning back. I remember his outreach to me a few days later, a terse email, "I got your letter; give me a few days." And, of course, I remember our first conversation, when he finally called me and I heard his disheartened tone, the spoken question, "are you sure?" begging for a reversal, and the absent "I love you," that usually ended our calls. I knew my confession disappointed him and worried that I had permanently damaged our relationship. To this day, I don't really know if I did.
I don't know how many emails I sent my father trying to convince him of the wrongness of his position that homosexuality was evidence of dysfunction at least, disease at worst. How many times did he ignore my arguments and respond with "try to understand." How infuriating! I was the wronged party, the person whose rights were denied. I was the victim, yet conciliation was up to me.
For years I told my partner I couldn't marry her in the event we were ever given the opportunity to marry. I couldn't have my father at my wedding, because I knew he'd be uncomfortable. I couldn't have my father miss my wedding, because I would miss his presence. I hated the position he put me in, and blamed him for his intransigence.
Washington State voters approved marriage equality.
Slowly, I stopped haranguing my father about homosexuality. I realized I was never going to get anywhere by pursuing the battle. He was wrong, I also realized. And yet, I loved him, despite his inability to shift his perspective, despite the pain he caused me by not being fully supportive.
I realized he wasn't going to support me in the way I longed for, and I still could go on and live my life as I saw fit. I didn't have to hold a grudge; nor did I have to deviate from my own path.
I got engaged to the woman of my dreams.
And then the unexpected happened: I told my father of my decision. I invited him to my wedding. He told me how very happy he was for me and for my intended.
And, he came to our wedding. Traveled three thousand miles. That's what grace bestowed upon me: his presence without my anguish. Love. Acceptance. Connection.