Be thankful for the bad stuff

Migrant Mother Photo from the Great Depression

An award winner! This essay won in the AuthorsDen Thanksgiving Contest.

It’s November. While some argue whether a coffee cup in Christmas colors is sufficiently Christmassy, we may forget that there is an important holiday this month, Thanksgiving.

Giving thanks isn’t some wimpy rainbows-and-unicorns sentiment. It sometimes forces us to deal with guilt when we fail to do the good we should. Furthermore, gratitude isn’t just for the good stuff that happens in our lives. We should be grateful for the bad stuff too.

A couple of my friends recently lost a parent. Both of my parents died, so I know what my friends are going through is hard. But I also know that losing a loved one often reveals the good that we didn’t know they did. One person gave a touching Facebook post about how my friend’s father accepted her when she came out and how his support helped her. I recently heard wonderful things about my mom. A friend told me about how kind she was and how the kids in the neighborhood looked up to her. People don’t like to boast about the good things they do, and goodness flows from their hearts so easily that they don’t feel it requires any comment. That’s why we don’t learn about those good things until our loved one is gone. When we do learn it, we can find comfort and a deeper appreciation for those we lost.

We should also be grateful for our hardships, including when we’re going through them. It’s easy to be grateful for the hard times after we’ve survived them and and can say, “I’m glad I went through that because it made me who I am today.” What’s harder is to see the good in the midst of our trials when the outcome is still in doubt.

I have friends who have gone through cancer. They’ve posted pictures of themselves after a round of chemotherapy with a smile that looks like they won the Super Bowl. They consider each day they live a victory over their illness. Some of my friends have sported humorous t-shirts like “Yes, [my breasts] are fake. The real ones were trying to kill me!” My friends found the humor and developed the positive attitude through the uncertainty and physical pain.

When we talk about hardships, we must also talk about the terrorist attacks in Paris last Friday. People around the world have expressed their sympathy and solidarity with the French people. This includes Freiburg, Germany, a town I visited in 2013 and 2014. The night after the attacks, a group of 150 stood in front of the French Cultural Center in the town square to sing “La Marseillaise” in support of the people of Paris. Remember that this is a country that was once France’s greatest enemy and a town that was occupied by the French after World War II. Now, they stand in support of the French people.

If there is any good that can come from what happened, it’s the recognition that we need to support one another and call for solidarity and peace. It’s a call that must also be made for the suffering people in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, Russia, Kenya, Turkey, and wherever war and terror take place. Humanity and compassion have no borders.

These situations show us how suffering forces us to discover who we truly are and what is important to us. Steve Jobs said the following at his commencement address at Stanford University as he struggled with the cancer that eventually killed him:

Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure — these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.

We receive gifts everyday. Some of them can be labeled tragedies, suffering, mistakes, disasters, setbacks, and loss. These gifts also have things to offer. We can use them to develop courage, grace, endurance, humor, compassion, and perspective. We can find the light in the darkest of circumstances, and we can be our best even when things are at their worst. For all of these gifts, whether we label them good or bad, we should be grateful.