It is easy to give thanks when things are going well. It is harder to do so when life has dealt us difficult, demanding and depressing situations. But just as a smooth sea never made a good sailor, the most genuine expressions of thankfulness are created in the crucible of adversity.
The Apostle Paul said that it is “thankworthy” when a person can still express gratitude in the face of grief and suffering. My ancestral cousin dealt with the deaths of his daughter and granddaughter by writing the message below to his bereaved son-in-law:
“We live in a land of plenty. The all-wise Giver of every good thing bestows on his unworthy subjects the necessities and comforts of life in abundance — and yet how little do we appreciate the unbounded love and mercies, both spiritual and temporal, that He is constantly bestowing upon us. I feel at times that I should blush at my ingratitude.”
An ancestral uncle had a similar attitude of gratitude and humility: “We are in good health thanks be to the Almighty God for all his mercies to us poor and unworthy sinners. We thank God for having plenty to eat and clothes to wear. We are content.”
A missionary cousin strongly felt that America’s bountiful harvest and blessings should be shared. “Righteousness has exalted this nation. To give the world the life more abundant is the debt and duty of the American people. No man can live for himself, nor can a nation.”
But it was my great-aunt Mary who had the best eye for spying the silver lining in a grey cloud. She boarded a train late at night en route to
a new job as an art teacher. She soon spotted a full moon out the window and cheered a blind musician who serenaded the handful of passengers, including “two girls from Iowa going to Cumberland Gap to teach in a mission school. We had a jolly time.”
Things were considerably less jolly when they arrived at Cumberland Gap only to find that the train tunnel through the mountain had collapsed. Riding in creaky horse-drawn wagons was the only way over the mountain. Mary embraced the opportunity. “I climbed into a wagon with six men so I could sit in front.” She tells the story.
“It was 5 a.m. The horses were bony and so were the drivers. The rocks rose straight up on one side and straight down on the other, so that a little jump to that side of the road would have made pressed beef of me.
“On the summit we were in three states at once — Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee — and I was in a fourth, a state of bliss. Six men behind me, one at my side, and the loveliest mountain scenery all around. As far as the eye could see, rose one mountain after another. Some were above the clouds, some below, but a blue haze hovered around the tops of all of them.
“The road was rocky, solid sandstone in some places, but with beautiful flowers growing out of the stones, and ferns that would have set one wild had there not been so many other things to take your attention.”
Aunt Mary later married and became a wealthy bookseller in Kansas City My wife and I visited her shortly after her 98th birthday. Her birthday cake, she proclaimed with a wave of her hand, had been “a blaze of glory.” So was she. Mary Hosbrook Kincaid left her sizeable fortune to local charities, her way of saying “thank you” to the city which had embraced a female entrepreneur.
After attending a lecture by “Roots” author Alex Haley, who spoke of having a white grandfather in Ireland, I wrote him a letter about my 1790s family letters from Ireland. Haley replied that “what you’ve written naturally thrills a buff of history like me.” His parting advice, offered shortly before his death, was “Find the good and praise it.”
As we prepare for Thanksgiving, reflect on the wisdom of some of these sayings. “I feel at times that I should blush at my ingratitude,” “No man can live for himself, nor should a nation,” “Find the good and praise it.” And give thanks for all that we have.
James F. Burns is a retired professor at the University of Florida.