The holidays are rapidly approaching — and we the people are angry. A year after the nastiest presidential election in modern history, our general ire seems further stoked. In this age of rage, one can find any number of reasons to be furious: congressional gridlock, the President (or his critics), the media, racial divisions, the gall of anyone who disagrees with us on social media. By some measures, almost two-thirds of Americans report being angry every day – and most claim they angrier now than last year or the year before.
Why are we so torqued? Certainly, there are deep injustices meriting indignation. But one of the revealing aspects of various studies on the national mood was that the angriest people weren’t the worst off, or those who had suffered great losses, but who had a stronger sense of disappointed expectation or perceived disrespect. The resulting resentment often fuels a search for a cause – or a villain. It also tends to frame setbacks or slights as part of a larger sense of being cheated – and grows in intensity with each new incident.
But ironically, the anger harbored by the frustrated is likely to compound their struggles and difficulties. Anger has been shown to increase the risk of premature death, heart disease, depression, anxiety, headaches, stroke risk, and even bad breath – nor is it helpful, not surprisingly, for relationships.
But if anger is a strong poison, there is an even stronger antidote in grace and gratitude. Against the simmering resentment of disappointed expectation, grace gives abundantly to those with no legitimate claim. Gratitude involves perceiving and pondering the many ways in which each of us have been graced – which requires turning attention from the way in which one has been mistreated to the ways one has been cared for. Together, grace and gratitude bring a change of heart and healing – both to an individual and community.
On a personal level, the potency of thanksgiving to cure what ails us is remarkable: significant medical evidence indicates that those who are thankful and cultivate “an attitude of gratitude” live longer, laugh more, sleep better, enjoy stronger marriages, have more friends, are less likely to be addicted, depressed, or indebted; recover from setbacks sooner, and report a greater sense of hope and purpose than those who don’t. And within a community, the willingness to listen to, pray with, love, and spend time with one’s neighbor will be a vitally necessary, if perhaps insufficient, means of rebuilding the trust, communication, and friendship needed to reknit a divided people.
Against such a backdrop, the celebration of a day of Thanksgiving this week may serve not only as a rest and holiday, but a much needed medicine for what ails us. If “a thankful heart has a continual feast,” may this Thanksgiving dinner be the start of a much longer meal.