Thanksgiving After Another Tough Year

Chris Pappalardo

Remember the early days of the pandemic? I do. Mostly.

During the spare moments of March 2020 in which I wasn’t eaten up with anxiety (admittedly few) or attempting to work and supervise two young children (doing both rather poorly), I spent a decent amount of time patting myself on the back. 

Why? 

Everyone around me was gearing up for three whole weeks of dealing with this stupid new virus. But I had read some articles. I knew things. This might last three whole months.

Or, as it turns out, closer to three whole years. 

Okay, so I have no clue when we’ll officially close the book on COVID-19. Maybe three years is over-shooting it. (I sure hope so.) But I know I’m not the only one who limped along to the finish line of 2020, surprised at how long the pandemic was proving to be. And at how tough the year had been.

But wouldn’t you know it, when the calendar turned over to 2021, I suddenly felt like an optimist again. 2021 would be better. Easier. Less contentious. More prosperous. Less defined by virus statistics and racial strife and economic instability. More defined by healing and wholeness and rest. 

And you know what? Maybe 2021 has been that kind of year for you. Maybe 2021 has been the return to normal you longed for all throughout 2020. Maybe you’re in a better spot now than in February 2020. Don’t feel ashamed about it. Restoration is a good thing.

But maybe you’re not living your best life. It’s been a tough year for you. Another tough year. 

More likely, your last 12 months have been, like mine, a mixed bag. You’ve felt some return to normalcy. But not completely. The long shadow of March 2020 still hangs over some part of your life. A broken relationship. A lost job. An empty chair around your dining room table. 

Now here comes Thanksgiving—a national moment to look on the bright side of things. And suddenly I feel a lot of pressure to say, “It’s been a great year!” That’s what Thanksgiving is, right? Focusing on the good stuff? No room for this to be another tough year. 

What Do We Do With Another Tough Year?

To be fair, it’s not Thanksgiving’s fault. Pausing to be grateful is a good and healthy practice. The problem is my warped view of gratitude. In my mind, gratitude is a response to the Good Life, which is all jumbled up with the American Dream. 

So, as a kid, when I was asked to write up everything I was thankful for, the list was predictable—my toys, my favorite foods, the Philadelphia Eagles, and (when prompted) my family. 

As an adult, my list might be more sophisticated, but it’s not fundamentally different. Family, friends, health, meaningful work. All of these are good things. But what about those years when the list grows short? When family and friends hurt us, and our health fails us, and our work is unfulfilling?

In short, can we still be grateful after another tough year?

I think so. But not by ignoring the tough stuff. 

Don’t Pretend It Wasn’t Another Tough Year

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about a practice called examen. Like most of the Christian practices I’m obsessed with these days, the monks came up with it. 

(The monks weren’t perfect dudes. But they had some great ideas.)

Examen started—or, perhaps, was made most famous—with Ignatius of Loyola in the 16th century. It’s a deceptively simple practice: At the end of every day, you pause long enough to reflect on the day and bring it before God. Where did I sense God’s presence? Where did God feel absent? What was life-giving? What was difficult? Through all of it, what was I feeling? Choosing one experience or feeling, you pray to God. Then you look ahead, intentionally, to the following day.

Examen isn’t primarily a way of recapping your day (though it helps with that). It’s geared toward relationship. Examen is a practice designed to remind you of a central truth: God has been with you. In this way, the practice is less like cleaning up your kitchen before bed and more like tucking your children in with a story and a song. 

Examen reminds us: In the beauty, God was there. 

In the pain, God was there. 

In the mundane, or the frustrating, or the shameful, or the confusing, or the exhilarating, God was there.

The more we make a point of reminding ourselves that God was there—right there in the full range of our human emotions—the more likely we are to be honest with God about our struggles. 

Because this is what makes examen so relevant for a season like Thanksgiving: It gives us permission to reflect on our days with complete honesty. Just because it’s November doesn’t mean we should brush away our hurts and pretend that our lives are perfect. God isn’t calling us to ignore the dark stuff and “think positive.” He isn’t asking us to imagine some silver lining for our life’s biggest disappointment. He’s inviting us to talk to him with candor, honesty, and lament.

God Was There Through Another Tough Year

Candor. Honesty. Lament.

And gratitude. 

See, here’s the thing: Most of us try to drum up some gratitude by only looking at the good stuff. But be honest with yourself: Does that work? Your spouse left you; but hey, you’re getting a $500 Christmas bonus! Of course not. 

The folks at Alcoholics Anonymous are closer to the target: 

“God, grant me … [to live] one day at a time; 

Enjoying one moment at a time;

Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace.”

The good and the bad intermingle in that short prayer (a prayer that is, in a sense, a sort of examen). Today God has given you something good. Enjoy it as the gift it is. Today God has led you through something hard. Thank him for his presence in the midst of it. 

What unites the high times and the hard times? What allows us to offer them both to God with a sincere, “Thank you”? God’s presence.

I don’t know what 2021 held for you. Nor do I know what 2022 holds for any of us. But one thing I do know: God was there. And God will be there. He walks ahead of us and invites us to follow him in the pathway to peace. And the rougher the road, the more he promises to hold our hands along the way.