Learning to be Thankful

Thanksgiving marks the psychological, if not the official, beginning of the annual holiday season, a season of reflection and appreciation. We take the time between Thanksgiving and the New Year, to spend more time with those who matter to us the most, those who have helped us or enriched our lives, and those we feel somewhat obligated to be kind to or show appreciation for. It is a busy season marked with dinners, parties, gifts and cards.

But it is one thing to engage in acts of appreciation, and quite another to truly feel thankful for life’s many blessings. Being thankful is an acquired quality or attribute. In other words, we learn to be thankful.

I grew up in an unusual Chinese family where my dad, especially, would say “thank-you” or “I am sorry” to us when he felt necessary to do so. I didn’t know how special that was until I realized how few families did that in China, where family members were taken for granted rather than treated with the same courtesy and gratitude as others.

While being kind to those who are kind to us, or reciprocity, was emphasized in our culture, being thankful for something beyond our control, or what some call life’s simple gifts, was unheard of. We would simply call that good fortune, I guess. I was first introduced to that concept of being thankful by a very nice and deeply faithful student while in college. We were talking about religion and beliefs one day, when he asked, “Have you ever felt grateful for something in life…like your family, your life and your talents?” I was caught off guard but fascinated by his thinking and mindset. That conversation left a lasting impression on me because it made me look myself in a different light and reevaluate my attitude towards life.

But it was a tragic death of another college friend that shook me to my core and offered an unforgettable lesson of what it means to be grateful. A student I had befriended was killed in a bicycle accident while studying abroad in China. At his memorial service back home in Indiana, I met his parents, who lost their only son. I felt terrible and even somewhat guilty because he and I had talked about his desire to study in China and of course, I had encouraged him. Mark’s father said, in the most loving way, “We are grateful that Mark got to do what he loved to do before he died. He had always wanted to study in China. Thank you for being his friend.” I was profoundly moved by that unexpected expression of grace.

Being thankful is a show of both strength and humility, and an expression of maturity and wisdom. Looking back, I wish I were more thankful when my son was young and totally dependent on our love and care. I wish I were more thankful for my mother’s sacrifice when she left her job as a music teacher in China to care for my son for almost a year when he was born. And I even wish I were more thankful for some of life’s setbacks because they made me more resilient, resourceful and appreciative.

In a culture that rewards competition over collaboration, being thankful lets us see the big picture—which is, none of us can do it alone. Most things in life require either help from others or what some may call an act of the divine spirit. In a world that is filled with problems and conflicts, being thankful gives us sanctuary and hope. In the stress of everyday life, being thankful fills our hearts with joy and peace.

Thanksgiving forces us to slow down, enjoy the company of our family and friends, and reflect on the many blessings in life. I am thankful that having lived in two very different cultures makes me a more insightful and interesting person. I am thankful to Asian Fortune and its founder and publisher, Jay Chen, for giving me the opportunity to share my cultural experiences and lessons learned. And I am thankful to those of you who have chosen to read my column and have even written to share your experiences and make that special connection with me. Thank you.

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