The Anatomy and Physiology of Thankfulness

Being thankful is a choice we make—and it comes with a complex constellation of consequences.

“Let your hope keep you joyful, be patient in your troubles, and pray at all times.” Romans 12:12 

This Bible verse was written in pencil on a torn piece of an index card and stuck in the upper right hand corner of my dresser mirror while I was an adolescent and a teenager.  This scrap of Divine direction helped to order my young life.  The commitment to such thankful living came from a place of both plentitude and pain.

As a survivor of sexual violence there came a time when this verse took on a sinister tone to me.  When I started to let myself live in the truth of the ravages of rape I did not feel joyful, patient… sometimes I did not even feel prayerful.  I still go through those times when I cycle back through the grief of all I lost when I was so young.  You see, being thankful and joyful and patient can be mistaken for passivity and powerlessness when abuse is a part of the picture.  Abuse has its own anatomy that takes any virtue and distorts it, demonizes it, and creates affliction out of it.  I had to wake up to that dynamic before I could let this piece of paper be a source of life-giving inspiration again.

The balm for that kind of woundedness has to meet the pain where it is—deep in the tissues and cells of our bodies, in the crevices of our souls.  Violence has a way of seeping into the tiniest of entry points and finding a way to distort life from there.  If healing doesn’t address those shadowy places, it will always lack the power to truly transform the roots of affliction into wisdom, compassion, a spirit of joyfulness and adventure.

I remember the day when I embraced this way of life anew.  It was a day when I felt the cellular truth of redemption.   I found a way to be thankful for the wilderness times that make redemption not simply an idea but a part of my anatomy and physiology.  The goings on of that day are not so remarkable.  The sensation that came with it is what I keep close.  The visceral layers of being thankful made such an impression on me that I “got it” and have believed in its power ever since.

I felt the power that day of God’s refusal to discard any part of my life—even the garbage I try to ignore, deny, and avoid.  God takes that garbage and finds a way to recycle it into something that has the potential to feed life.  God really can take the worst case scenarios and weave them back into strands of something beautiful.  Feeling that truth is where thankfulness comes from.

Medical science is catching up with what the Spirit has been up to since life existed—being thankful is good for you.  It makes your life better.  Being thankful actually changes the physiology of your body, your brain—it wears a new groove in the creek beds of your habits and perspectives.  Being thankful can actually make you see your life differently—and that shift in perspective and outlook creates a different flow for your nervous system, a different default mode for your neurons.  The calming effect of thanksgiving can help your heart.  That capacity to recognize the golden thread in all circumstances can help you digest food and find energy and desire movement and relationships and new experiences.

Being thankful is not a naïve outlook; it is not rose-colored glasses.  Being thankful is a wise choice—like eating green vegetables and drinking enough water and exercise.  And being thankful is a seasoned kind of perspective.  When I use the word “wise”—I mean grounded in life-experience and in the clear realization that we are not alone, we are not free agents, we are not the architects of what happens next.  Being thankful means having profound awareness that life comes with suffering, injustice, and the ravages of undeserved harm.

It might sound like a contradiction to say both that making the choice to be thankful can change your life and that we are not the architects of what happens next.  Yes, and, it is true.  You and I make choices that can help us live a better life, but we can’t control the vagaries of the web of cause and effect that we are all caught in.  In the midst of all the terrible things that happen to us and around us, thankfulness is a way to recognize the redemptive possibilities in the tangle of life.

The complex consequences of thankfulness are that you and I are not in charge, and you and I can be transformed when we are wise to the inner most workings of how we are made.  We have power and we are absolutely dependent.  We can change the world, and we can’t.

This week we’re supposed to take special time to be thankful by resting, eating, being with people who mean something to us, and by saying thank you out loud—to the universe, to the powers that be, to God and everybody.    Thanksgiving’s anatomy and physiology means you say it both from plentitude and from pain.  I am not thankful that I was raped when I was a teenager, but I am thankful for how God has never given up on helping me find ways to heal and to wear new pathways for my life that was forever changed.  I am not thankful for all the injustice and hatred in this world, but the thankful habits in me see Divine invitations in all those places and spaces for humanity to be transformed.

I might find a new scrap of paper this year and write that verse in ink and put in on the mirror I look into each morning as an adult.  Sure, it has a history.  For that, I am truly thankful.

“Let your hope keep you joyful, be patient in your troubles, and pray at all times.” Romans 12:12

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