Why Thanksgiving Isn’t About Saying Thanks

He was likely twice my age. He moved so slowly, his steps looked painful and sluggish against the sidewalk. He stopped just under the overpass and lay his dirty backpack against the cold stones of the retaining wall.

I was running in the sunshine and could see him from a distance along the path. Just as I passed him by, he was rolling an old sleeping bag out on the concrete, torn and dark from the dirt of past use. I pulled my headphones out of both ears as I trudged by, and heard a soft squeak slide off my tongue—


He turned quicker than I was expecting and stared at me for a sharp second, a deeply weathered face and grown out hair, just before turning back to his business. I kept on my running route. About thirty minutes later, on my way back from a long loop around the park, I passed him again, curled up and asleep in the shadows of the downtown bridge.

For a second my heart ached. For a second, I wanted to know his story. And then, after the memory of his face kept sticking in my mind, all that was left was an unshakeable guilt.


How could I just run by like that, like everything was great? How did I end up in circumstances with a warm and comfortable bed, clean clothes, and enough food?

Strangely enough, I actually felt gross about my life.

This week, all of the United States panders over turkey, mashed potatoes, pumpkin pie, and the notorious black Friday deals that mark the start of holiday shopping. But on top of the cooking, the busy-ness, the traveling to see family and friends and camping on the cement outside superstores, there is another popular topic of conversation that always seems to come up: thankfulness.

We search for it, demand it from others, and wonder how it fits in with all the excess.

It’s supposed to be the point of the holiday, so you have to be thankful, right? Thousands upon thousands of people in the world are going hungry, or don’t have warm homes, or are fleeing for their lives. So we feel obligated to go around the circle and list off the things we are glad we have.

But I guess my question is, are we only thankful because we are guilt-tripped or forced into it? And what if this day was about more than just the words we say?

If we only say thanks because we feel obliged to, we likely are missing the point. If we only realize the gravity of the things we have and the people around us because a holiday tells us to, we likely are missing the point. If the words we say out loud are not an authentic representation of our hearts, we likely are missing the point.

When you are given a gift, you accept it and cherish it because you are so excited that someone thought of you. The gift-giver is equally excited because they know their gift will be enjoyed and put to good use.

Life is exactly like that—something that has been given to each one of us.

After receiving that gift, though, we all have a choice to make. The first is to take what you have been given and not only say that you are thankful for it, but to actually enjoy the gift. You use it, you have fun with it, you hold on to it. The second is to say “thanks”, but only because it would be rude to not, and then forget about the wonderful thing that you were given.

See, the whole point of “thanksgiving” is not to guilt trip society into gloating over what they have, comparing the blessings of their lives to others more or less fortunate, or to superficially give meaning to a plate stacked high with delicious food.


The point of giving thanks is to celebrate.

We get together, sit around a table, and drink in the fact that not only are we surrounded by good “things” in life, but also remember that another year is concluding. The point is to revel in how you have used, enjoyed, and benefited from the gift that is your life.

You made it. Have you ever thought about that? You made it through another difficult, surprising, wonderful, exhausting, beautiful year of life. Being genuinely and wholly thankful is realizing that, and being stoked about who you are, doing what you are doing, with who you are doing it with.

[clickToTweet tweet=”The point of giving thanks is to celebrate. ” quote=”The point of giving thanks is to celebrate. “]

You may be with a hundred friends this turkey day, or facing your first holiday alone. You may be eating a gourmet feast, or enchiladas, or ramen noodles. You may be running through life with ease, or struggling under an underpass. You also may be painfully running or enjoying your time on the concrete.

Betsie Ten Boom was a Dutch woman arrested for harboring Jews in her home in the years leading up to World War II and was sent to Auschwitz, where she died. But even in her difficult time in hell on earth, she used to tell her sister that she thanked God even for the fleas.

Truthfully, we can say that we are thankful about so many things in our lives—the biggest joys or the smallest comforts.

But we can also fake appreciation. We can go along with the same traditions, going through the motions we have participated in for years and years and not actually enjoy a single minute of it. Just being thankful in speech and spectacle isn’t always indicative of the heart.

It’s a most redundant phrase, but they say that actions speak louder than words. The same is true for gratitude. We can wake up Thursday morning telling ourselves and others we are thankful until we are blue in the face. But the truest testimony is not just saying thanks because you have to.

The best way to be appreciative this Thanksgiving is by living.

  • Dick Faggotson

    You have just elaborated on my philosophy: there are so many ways I could die today – crossing the street, falling on subway tracks, terrorist attack, thug ambush, slipping on ice and fracturing my skull, but I survived that day, I enjoyed it and I’m thankful for that. And even though we don’t have Thanksgivings in Russia, I do. 365/366 a year.

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