Gratitude for what we have right now doesn’t have to mean giving up on dreams or aspirations. On the contrary, being thankful can help sustain us through the sometimes difficult and painful work of changing our lives for the better.
Not far from where I grew up in the west of Scotland, there’s a long section of the A83 trunk road that passes between towering hills, climbing for several miles before descending again towards the shores of Loch Long. At the very top of the climb is a car park where tourists stop to admire the view into the valley hundreds of feet below, and a commemorative stone inscribed with the words ‘Rest and Be Thankful’. The stone is a replacement for the original which was placed there in 1753 by the soldiers who built the old military road through the pass. And how well they chose their words, because in the old days before the luxury and convenience of motor transport, travellers toiled for hours to make the climb, taking time at the summit quite literally to ‘rest and be thankful’ that they’d made it to the top.
Thankfulness, I often feel, is a much under-rated quality. There’s a tendency to place a lot of emphasis on self-gratification and getting what we want right now rather than being thankful for what we already have. And I don’t just mean material possessions; how often do we consciously take time to appreciate some of the less tangible but very real and important things in our life, like friendship or love, or the smaller things like the taste of a home-cooked meal, the feel of warm sunshine on our skin, or the sound and smell of the sea?
The American author Sarah Ban Breathnach wrote: ‘Real life isn’t always going to be perfect or go our way, but the recurring acknowledgment of what is working in our lives can help us not only to survive but surmount our difficulties’. (See her site Simple Abundance.) For me, thankfulness is like a slab of bedrock, a solid foundation on which to stand and face up to the challenges that confront me, just as we’re all confronted with challenges of one sort or another. At other times, I think of it as a warm cloak that I can metaphorically pull snugly around my shoulders when the weather is cold and the challenges become more difficult. Both of these give me a sense of an inner strength that I can call upon if needed.
Being thankful for what we have doesn’t mean giving up on our dreams and aspirations; being thankful for having a roof over your head, food in your cupboard, and clothes on your back is one thing, but human beings need more than the bare essentials if we’re to live a truly fulfilled life. People often come for counselling or therapy because they are not getting what they need in order to live that life. Far be it from me to say to anyone ‘You should be thankful for what you’ve got’, because many people face dreadful and seemingly insurmountable difficulties, but I do believe that by looking at what is in fact working in your life — what you really do have to be thankful and appreciative for — you can begin to build an inner source of strength that will help to sustain you through the sometimes difficult and painful work of changing your life for the better.
A couple of nights ago, a good friend of mine rang with some very happy news — the man she had set her heart upon had finally plucked up the courage to tell her he loved her. She was over the moon with excitement! Listening to her talk about her new relationship, I was filled with a profound sense of not just pleasure for my friend, but also thankfulness that this happiness had come to her. Never one to moan or complain about the considerable difficulties she faced on a daily basis, my friend’s life was now been enriched immeasurably by the experience of being loved. And I feel I’ve gained from her happiness too — as if I’ve woven her happiness into my own warm cloak and added some sturdy bricks to my solid foundation.
I wonder what inner sources of strength you would draw upon and for which you might be thankful? Perhaps like those long-ago travellers, exhausted by their climb to the top of the mountain pass, we should all take some time out now and then to ‘rest and be thankful’ before pressing on with the next stage of our life’s journey.
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