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The Truth about Gratitude

November 26, 2019
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 As we get ready for Thanksgiving, Dr. Andy Stoker gives us some wise counsel on how to make the best of this week, and the holidays in the weeks to come.

I was asked a couple of weeks ago: “What makes the holidays with my family so hard?”

The holidays are wrought with all kinds of conditioned beliefs, events and rituals that have a weighty meaning. Our first impressions of settlers and natives calling a truce and coming together over a meal later translated to the idea that we too must put aside our different viewpoints to “play nice” and “get along”.  Multiple expectations only compound the stress. The family meal is to be eaten on special china. Or, the main course served is “fill-in-the-blank family member’s dish they always made.” And there’s still the squabble about who sits at the head of the table, or at the “kids’ table.” All of these expectations are connected to a family’s past –  tradition becomes traditional which becomes “we’ve-always-done-it-this-way.”

During the holidays, we enter into what are called “emotional fields”, layers upon layers of experiences that have manifested in story, expectation, celebration and disappointment. Our relationships with our families have shaped those experiences. In some families, the “tradition” sometimes metaphorically sits at the table with us as a subconscious guest. One may feel stressed, anxious, annoyed, uneasy, discouraged, alienated, lonely, despairing, and/or drained. All of these emotions are messages pointing to a Truth about your life, your wants, or your needs. These emotions are not ‘bad’, but are instead a clue to what is happening in your emotional field. When we understand that thoughts and emotions are simply messages rather than The (capital-t) Truth, we have the opportunity to recognize our behavior and reconnect to what is our (capital-t) Truth. We want the holidays to be exhilarating, cheerful, inspiring, joyful, hopeful, satisfying, balanced, comforting and peaceful. So, like a good Methodist Christian, let’s have a spiritual process to fall into when we are intellectually or emotionally triggered:

1) Choose your family carefully. Your biological family is your family of origin; you can also have a family of choice. We can choose how we want to be in our family of origin. Maybe you’ve been given a role to play in your family of origin. Or, maybe you are still seen as a child at a certain age because of a traumatic event that happened to you or in the family when you were that age. Ask yourself, before a family event, “Who do I want to be in our time together?” Often family roles are given to us; we might have never signed up for the role. You can resign from that role in the family, and be you.

More commonly, childhood trauma and family traumas can freeze a family in time. That unexpected death of grandma, a divorce, a miscarriage, a natural disaster, or anything that halts the progression of a positive outcome can be the defining moment for your family of origin. Intellectually, we know that much has changed and life has been lived since that trauma occurred, but somehow the narrative remains. You can choose to allow the trauma to be part of the story; it does not have to be the whole story. When the “time-in-memoriam” occurs, breathe; sense your feet planted on the ground, put your hand on your heart, assure yourself that today is today, that now is the time, and you are not who you are whenever that occurred.

2) Give yourself the ‘permission to feel’.  Emotions can help us understand what is going on outside of us, and, more importantly, within us. If you feel sad around the holidays, compassionately explore that feeling. Ask yourself, “What is this emotion pointing right now?” If you feel anxious, be curious about the anxiety. Ask, “When did that arise? Is it connected to a past experience that may not be true any longer? Is the anxious feeling directing my current behavior? Is there anything I can do about that?” (Often the answer is, “Yes, there is something I can do. I can allow the feeling and not attach myself to it. Or, if it is no longer useful to my personal growth or family interactions, I can let it go.)

3) Decide to Be Love. Jesus said, “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.” This short verse, from a wider teaching in John 15, reminds us that the way we are invited to view the world is through the lens of the person and work of Jesus Christ. Jesus is inviting us to be Love in every moment, starting with the person with whom we spend the most time…ourselves. We can choose to unleash the Love that is within us because that Love is here, it is now, and it is forever. With our families, we choose Love. We may not like a behavior, but Love enables us to rise above the intellectual or emotional triggers. Love takes presence of mind and an open heart, especially when things are difficult. The hardest thing we do as disciples of Jesus Christ is deciding to be Love.

Yes, the holidays with our families can be hard. But, with God’s help, we can allow God to shape our interactions into a more healthy and whole experience. I do pray that you have a Happy Holidays. More than that, I sincerely pray that you recognize the Holy in every day—that would mean many happy occasions.

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