Sweet Dates and Dead Oaks: The Dichotomy of Gratitude and Grief

Lisa Stepanski

There are blogs, books, podcasts—an entire industry devoted to gratitude. There are gratitude journals, complete with prompts in case you are stumped about how to express it. There are gratitude experts: Dr. Robert Emmons, a psychologist and professor, and Gretchen Rubin, blogger and author of “The Happiness Project.” There’s scientific research touting the many health benefits of expressing gratitude.

Can we all agree, then, that gratitude equals good? Excellent. Because that’s it for gratitude platitudes.

First, let’s get real: Thanksgiving, that humble holiday devoted to gratitude, has somehow morphed into the overlooked middle child of holidays, shoe-horned between its bolder, scarier sister, Halloween, and its angelic sibling, Christmas. Thanksgiving has somehow become merely a prelude to the frenzy that is Christmas. More than a few Christmas lights and decorations—fully illuminated no less, have sprouted on lawns in my town.

It appears, then, that Thanksgiving is being diminished, upstaged by noisier holidays. Why? Perhaps Americans are uncomfortable with expressing gratitude. Or we think it’s enough to do it formally just once a year. Or maybe we don’t think expressing gratitude is really that important.

Historical fact: it took writer and editor Sarah Josepha Hale decades of petitioning several presidents before she finally convinced Abraham Lincoln, to set aside a national day of thanksgiving, in 1863.

Another reason for the diminishment: maybe we just aren’t feeling it, especially this year. Who can blame us? Since this time last year, a lot has happened—much of it not deserving of gratitude. Together we’ve weathered a pandemic, a tumultuous political scene, numbingly regular gun violence, isolation, fear, sickness, even death.

Many have also experienced personal losses. My life was upended when I lost my son unexpectedly in December 2019, followed by a very close friend in March 2020. Honestly, it has been hard to be grateful. It’s still hard to be grateful. If nothing else, these past two years have taught me that.

Accompanying that hard-won realization, is, however, another insight: true gratitude is not just ticking off a list of things that make me feel good. Rather, gratitude springs from a conscious acknowledgement of life’s darker side, its sorrows and its losses. Counter-intuitive as it may seem, sorrow amplifies gratitude. To quote the Persian poet and mystic Rumi: “Even if life is a desolate desert with no sign posts/never lose hope in the paradise of your soul/sweet dates can grow from dead oaks.” Jesus says something very similar: pick up your cross and follow me. Jesus is also very clear: gratitude is a choice. And sometimes, it’s a hard choice to make, especially in the face of sorrow or pain.       

A more extended explication of gratitude is found in the Book of Psalms. The Psalms summarize the amazing breadth of human experiences—from darkness, anger, rage, disappointment, loss—to joy and blessings, exultation, and yes, gratitude. They are lyrical expressions of the yin and yang, the fury and glory of life. On the one hand: “Lord…rescue me; save me from all who pursue me; lest they maul me like lions, tear me to pieces with none to save.” (Psalm 7). On the other hand: “I will praise you, Lord, with all my heart…I will delight and rejoice in you.” (Psalm 9-10) As Rumi observes: “wherever there is pain/healing goes that way/wherever there is poverty/relief heads that way/where there is difficulty/the answer goes there.”

This year, Thanksgiving was preceded on Sunday by the Feast of Christ, the King. This Catholic feast is the culmination of Ordinary Time and marks the end of the liturgical year. Instituted by Pope Pius during the Jubilee Year 1925, the Feast of Christ, the King celebrates the sovereignty of Christ over all else. Pius established the feast at a time not dissimilar to today. The Old World order had been convincingly trounced by the devastation that was WWI. The overthrow of Tsar Nicholas in 1917 prompted European instability and the decade-long rise of tyrants and fascism, Nazism and communism. I suspect it was as difficult in 1925 to feel gratitude as it can be today. Pius established the feast in large part to counteract the pessimism and darkness of that era and to remind Catholics of the true source of their joy and their gratitude.

Sweet dates from dead oaks. People walking in darkness who do see a great light.

How can we reclaim Thanksgiving and with it a renewed sense of gratitude? I’m not referring to a pious, Hallmark-inspired, sentimental, ticking-off-a-list kind of gratitude, but rather a genuine, transformative gratitude? A sense of gratitude that buoys, energizes, and most importantly, enables a person to successfully confront and surf the vicissitudes of life? The attitudinal armor that can keep you afloat and dare I say it, always hopeful—always, always….in spite of and regardless.

Happily, Catholics have the Feast of Christ, the King. It’s the Church’s early Christmas gift to us. Celebrating the feast at mass is a way to extend, if only for a few days, this short formal season of gratitude.

Writer Kaira Jewel Lingo offers another way. She writes, “I…began to see that along with all the suffering and pain, there are also many beings that are supporting others in the present moment…When I focused on that other part of the larger picture, I was able to touch that, yes, this present moment is also a wonderful moment. I saw that suffering doesn’t have to disappear in order for beauty to be there. That life is about all of these things…The reality is that there is great terror and pain, and there is great love and great wisdom. They’re all here, coexisting in this moment.”

So, before you pack away the turkey centerpiece and rush off to Black Friday shopping, I encourage you to pause and acknowledge all that has happened to you in this past year, the good and the bad. The sweet dates and the dead oaks. Pick up your cross and contemplate it. Coexist in the moment. Then close your eyes and offer this simple prayer attributed to medieval mystic Meister Eckhardt: “If the only prayer you ever say in your life is thank you, that should suffice.”

Lisa Stepanski
Lisa Stepanski

Lisa Stepanski is the Associate Dean of Humanities and Social Sciences and a Professor of English. She teaches courses in writing and American literature, most recently, ENGL 2309 The Haves and Have Nots: Money, Class, and Power in American Literature. Her research interests include nineteenth-century American women writers, the Alcott family, Catholic writers, and early women aviators. She is the author of The Home Schooling of Louisa May Alcott: How Her Father and Mother Educated an American Writer. Not surprisingly, her favorite heroines are Jo March and Francie Nolan.