How to Be Thankful When You Really Aren't

How to Be Thankful When You Really Aren't

How to Be Thankful When You Really Aren't

Figuring out how to be thankful when you’re not is tricky. Over the years as our lives skipped along, it was often easy to see things to be grateful for, but when our life was shattered by the death of both my mum and sister from cancer, swiftly followed by my own diagnosis just six short weeks later, giving thanks wasn’t top of mind.

Figuring out how to be thankful when you’re not is tricky.

We’re Brits in the USA and so we came to this land of dreams with absolutely no idea what to do over the Thanksgiving break.

It seemed every family had their own traditions that involved varying amounts of football watching, sale shopping, devouring copious amounts of turkey and, in some instances, a strange culinary conundrum called sweet potato pie. (What’s with those marshmallows smoothed on top anyway?)

Yet, whatever people ate or drank, no matter which football team they rooted for, or how much traveling to family they had to navigate, one thing was clear.

Thanksgiving is a time of gratitude for the blessings of life.

Over the years as our lives skipped along, it was often easy to see things to be grateful for, but when our life was shattered by the death of both my mum and sister from cancer, swiftly followed by my own diagnosis just six short weeks later, giving thanks wasn’t top of mind.

When I Couldn’t See Anything Worthy of Giving Thanks

As I moved through biopsies, oncologist appointments, and put surgery dates on my calendar, I wondered whether the family heat-seeking missile of death had locked in on me?

I railed at God.

Are you kidding me, after all I’ve done for you?

What have I done to deserve this?

Are you mad at me, trying to teach me something or what?

Where’s this full, abundant life you promised me?

Whether it’s cancer or something else, one thing I know for sure, no one gets to skip the tough stuff. Our world can fall apart in an instant or unravel slowly over time. As a Brit—with a stiff and beautifully bleached upper lip—and a Hardy by both name and nature, I was determined to keep calm and survive. The trouble was, after chemo, radiation, surgery and yet more chemo, surviving was all I was doing – trapped in survival mode, merely surviving a life I’d never planned or imagined.

We’re told to “give thanks in all circumstances” (1Thessalonians 5:18), but at that moment it didn’t just seem impossible, it felt like a downright joke. Really? Give thanks? Are you kidding me?

My underwhelmed faith and overwhelmed heart were as inclined to give thanks as a tween boy is to spontaneously showering.

The trouble was, despite not feeling thankful, God still commanded me to give thanks.

When God Still Commands Us to Give Thanks

This is one of those areas where God is pretty clear and He’d left me no wiggle room—it’s a command, not a request, no matter what life had dumped on me.

Paul says we must give “thanks in all circumstances because it’s his will for our lives.” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18, emphasis mine) and we know God’s will is good, pleasing and perfect, so somehow, giving thanks in the midst of my cancer was good, pleasing, and even perfect.

Just because I couldn’t understand how that worked or see what that might look like, it didn’t let me off the hook.

I still had to give thanks.

His command still stood and I had to figure out how I was to obey, right in the midst of all my pain, nausea, worry and grief.

We may not understand how it works, but psychologists have uncovered the key to why God is so clear. Their research shows that practicing gratitude through thick and thin increases not just our sense of well-being, but our happiness, optimism, connection, empathy and even reduces our aggression.

All these benefits are exactly what we need as we navigate the hard seasons of life and struggle with pain, grief, disappointment and worry. They were just what I needed as I battled through my cancer.

Yet, if being grateful is so ridiculously good for us and God commands us to do it, what are we meant to do when we don’t feel thankful?

1. Start before You Feel It

Firstly, we must stop waiting for the pages of our life to flip forward to the happily ever after we’ve imagined. We must stop resenting the lives we’re living but never signed up for, only deigning to express our gratitude when something feels good.

In other words, we mustn’t wait to feel thankful to be thankful.

My cancer was rectal cancer and not only did the bottom fall out of my world the moment I was diagnosed but eventually, the world fell out of my bottom.

I jest and yet, I had to just get on with it - giving thanks while being pumped full of chemo or lying on a radiation table as my butt got zapped. I couldn’t wait for my cancer to be over, I didn’t know if it ever would be.

Many of us live with struggles that don’t have an expiration date, such as depression, infertility, or grief. We must therefore give thanks before we feel thankful.

2. Flip the Script

I'm a see-it-to-believe-it kind of person, so as I sat across from my new friend Kristan I ​tried to hide my skepticism.

She was telling me how when she feels tired and overwhelmed or her pain levels shoot through the roof, she's taught herself to be grateful by flipping the script of her inner mind-talk.

Because here's the thing, Kristan is a triple amputee.

After a double dose of the flu and pneumonia that left her in septic shock, fighting for her life, the drugs she was given saved her life, but at the cost of her hands; one of her feet and half her remaining foot.

She may joke that she’s lost three and a half limbs, but her life is no joke.

Kristan knows what it's like to be in constant pain, feel the hopelessness of shattered dreams, and be unable to see a path in her future, and yet, she's learned that gratitude is an action not a feeling. Flipping the script is the action she takes multiple times a day.

Her mantra is “Change one word, change your outlook” and she’s living proof it works.

As she flips the script "I have to do laundry" turns into "I get to do laundry because I have four wonderful kids a washing machine and hot running water."

"I have to drive carpool" becomes "I get to drive carpool because I've been able to learn to drive again."

Kristan isn’t always happy and skippy but she is convinced. Convinced flipping the script and giving thanks means she feels calmer, stronger, and able to grab hold all life has for her, even with prosthetic hands.

3. Shift Your Mindset

Giving thanks in all circumstances – the good, the bad, and the ugly – demands a thankful mind-set, not just thankful moments. If we can shift our individual grateful thoughts into a way of life, we will feel the increased well-being psychologists talk about, not just in moments, but in every part of our lives.

I’ve found the easiest way to do this is to make gratitude a part of my morning routine. Perhaps you can list three things you’re grateful for just as you turn your light out each night or keep a list on your phone—whatever’s easiest and you’re most likely to stick to. If you’re anything like me, good intentions aren’t enough. I need to make it a scheduled part of my day.

Eventually, as I stopped waiting for my cancer to be over or to feel grateful in order to be grateful, embraced flipping the script, then shifted my mindset to one where thanksgiving is a lifestyle, not a holiday, I discovered God is near and that “the peace of God that transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7).

If, like me, you’re struggling to find the blessings in life and you feel anything but thankful this Thanksgiving, can I invite you to practice gratitude anyway, giving thanks for both the wreckage as well as the rubies in life?

When you do, you’ll see your perspective shift and realize you don’t need to see things differently to be grateful, but rather be grateful to see things differently.

When our pain screams, our gratitude must shout louder to drown it out with praise. Then and only then can we truly discover that life doesn’t have to be pain free to be full.


Niki Hardy is the author of Breathe Again: How to Live Well When Life Falls Apart, a down to earth roadmap to help you discover that with God, life doesn’t have to be pain-free to be full, then go live it. Grab the first couple of chapters of Breathe Again for FREE HERE. When she’s not speaking, writing, or running trails with her Doodles, you can find her with a nice cup of tea, trying to figure out which remote control actually turns the TV on. Find out more about Niki at www.nikihardy.com

Photo Credit: ©Getty Images/Michail Petrov 96

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