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by Douglas Green
The word is out. There’s something wrong with Thanksgiving.
As with so many other holidays, we have ruined its original concept with enforced “traditions:” Macy’s parade, turkey, stuffing and pumpkin pie, televised football. Don’t get me wrong, I like all of these traditions, I just don’t know what they have to do with gratitude, or with immigrants thanking locals for helping them survive.
The secret to re-legitimizing the day isn’t the food, or even family. It’s the name. Can we return to actually giving thanks?
To find a way, I turn to the greatest teachers on gratitude I’ve ever known: dogs. Never unselfish, but habitually giving credit whenever they see it due.
So, from their pure integrity, here are some canine keys to a true Thanksgiving:
1. Sit in your front doorway and look around. A clever pooch knows this is the best place to relax. He can watch everything going on outside, while poised to jump if any food should drop. And it’s a perfect first stop on the gratitude trail.
What sort of home do you have? Do you rent or own? Does the doorway reveal a Downton Abbey landscape or a parking lot? Whichever, sit on that threshold and find twenty things you appreciate about your shelter and the astounding world outside it. If you can’t, you’re not looking hard enough.
2. Pretend that everyone in your life didn’t have to be there, or do what they’ve done for you. Then realize that’s the truth. We laugh at the enthusiasm pups show over the simplest things — their human, a treat or leash. But only because we take those sights for granted. What if you never assumed the one who’d cared for you would come home? What if you harbored doubts about ever tasting another cookie?
Then look at your present relationships. Your parents, your spouse, your friends, and even your dog. Take a moment to ask what your life would be like with any of them not there, or not caring about you.
Scary? Then take it further; focus on your love for them. Feel it till your heart could burst. That appreciation, that pain, is what dogs feel for us all the time. When they’re staring up from the floor, unable to intellectualize their feelings as we do. That’s being alive.
3. Whatever your religious beliefs, pretend you’re wrong. Dogs lack dogma. Their brains aren’t big enough to perceive a rationale for the universe. Dogs are neither theist nor atheist, sectarian nor agnostic.
Instead, they just appreciate. Do any of us honor the sun like a pup who shifts her sleeping to follow the rays? Do we run out after rains to absorb every enhanced scent?
Take a breath, close your eyes, and forget all that you believe about why the world is. And when you free your brain from the “why,” let it all roll over you: The enormity of outer space, the miracle of an ant, the luck of our proximity to the sun, the breathtaking complexity of your own body. And just try not to feel grateful.
4. Even if you absolutely, 100%, know it’s completely and totally wrong, pretend for just a wee moment that things are actually better today than they were a year ago. And see how many of them you can count. Have we ever been told as often that our world, our leaders, our lives are horrible? News channels screaming, rants on Facebook, forcing us to focus on lousiness. And then all the great people who’ve died, all the pollution, and get a load of what the kids listen to — it’s just garbage!
But if we put aside that all these worst-politicians-ever just lie and cheat, maybe we could remember that most of them, most of the time, are trying to do their best, and often get things right.
And are you happy about anyone who was born this last year? And how many new inventions reduce pollution? And have you noticed that all the music you like is still around, and maybe you’ve actually enjoyed one new song? So then, things are better, right?
Okay, maybe that argument doesn’t hold, but just give a moment to thanking the few things that you can agree have improved. If you can’t think of any, then admit that you have less brain than any dumb mutt, who has no trouble saying, “Right now, at this moment, that mushroom gravy I smell from two houses down is the most glorious creation ever!”
5. Embrace everyone, in the way they can accept. True gratitude should glow, not just in feeling thanks, but in expressing it, as dogs do every waking moment.
Now that doesn’t mean jumping onto the white dresses of frightened strangers. Own your social intelligence, like an obedience-school graduate, and treat people as you believe they would wish. Greet that work colleague with a warm handshake and smile. Embrace that chic friend with a peck-almost-on-the-cheek, that child with a warm hug, and your significant other with the passion you’ve stifled since Labor Day.
And who knows? Maybe these actions will give you more to be thankful for next year.
Now these canine behaviors create their own rewards, but there’s a higher goal here, too. And again, I learned it from a dog.
My pooch, Shirelle, had a fatal cancer, and was supposed to have died already; I lived in fear every time I left her for even a few hours. So last Thanksgiving, I gently took her with me to the home of some neighbors for their family celebration.
This couple had lost their own dog a couple of years before, and had embraced mine with an openness like grandparents. And Shirelle adored them, always lunging toward their door on our walks. I’d wondered why.
After chatting with some of their relatives, I realized the dog was missing. I checked room after room, until finally looking across at the open doorway to the kitchen.
There stood “Grandpa,” carving the turkey, with my big mutt sitting oh-so-politely at attention next to him. He carved slowly, methodically, putting one slice onto a platter for the family, handing the next slice to her, the next slice to the family, the next slice to her…spoiling the being I loved most just rotten.
Months of emotion welled up in my eyes. It was too goofy, too beautiful. He was thankful for her and she was thankful for him and I was thankful for both and for their gratitude to each other.
That should be our goal for the day. For thanks to go all the way around — everyone beholden to everyone — and the emotion overwhelming with its simplicity to where you realize that this is really the way the whole world should be, the way all of life should be.
Douglas Green is a psychotherapist, specializing in helping kids and teens build lives they can be proud of. He is also the creator and writer for AskShirelle.com, which helps kids, teens, parents, and others around the world with advice from the point of view of a friendly dog, and is the author of the book, The Teachings of Shirelle — Life Lessons from a Divine Knucklehead.