That was the advice I was given by a dear friend in May when I was informed I was the victim of budget cuts at the school I taught at. I was dumbfounded that my friend would suggest such a thing. After all, this bad thing had happened to me, and my friend wanted me to thank God?
I was skeptical but because I trust and love my friend very much, I did as he advised. I began thanking God that I had lost my job. For three weeks, as the school year came to a close, I cultivated the attitude of gratitude. I am so very glad I did. I was spared the path of despair, bitterness and spitefulness that I have seen others fall into.
We’re living in challenging times, times that put to the test our spiritual, emotional and psychological well-being. Life can sure throw us some whopper challenges, and as single people, the task of handling them alone can seem daunting. Thanksgiving 2011 is proving to be a very challenging holiday for many members of CatholicMatch.
Heading into the Fourth of July weekend, Emily from Grand Rapids, Mich., had a beautiful life all stretched out before her. She was engaged and in the midst of a fulfilling career as a nurse.
By the end of the weekend, her fiancé broke the engagement and she lost her job. At the end of the summer, her mother was in a serious accident.
Life in limbo
“It’s hard to find things to be thankful for when you feel like your life is in limbo,” she told me.
“During the hard times is when we should be most thankful,” she added. “That’s the time when we really appreciate what we have and what God has done for us. Even if it feels like nothing will go right ever again.”
John from Buffalo, N.Y., also knows about hard times. Earlier this year he found himself financially strapped, uninsured and feeling ill. He managed to get health insurance, and by late summer he was diagnosed with stage IIA colon cancer. In October John had surgery to remove part of his colon.
“Sometime in those first few days post surgery I began to feel, if not extreme gratitude, then extreme wonder, he said. “How remarkable is it that there are people who can open you up, take you apart, put you back together and have you out of bed in 24 hours?”
John will tell you that his prayer life isn’t what it should be. Yet in the same breath he will mention that he found participating in the sacrament of reconciliation prior to surgery freeing, has prayed the Liturgy of the Hours from his hospital bed and is deeply touched by all the prayers from people near and far, including CatholicMatch members in the prayer & support forum.
As John considers his treatment options (Does he go through with chemotherapy, or not?), he is given an 80 to 85 percent chance of being disease free in five years. He wonders what God has in store for him.
“For the last few years I’ve had a really tough time discerning God’s will in my life,” he said. “That didn’t and hasn’t changed. In the past there have been moments – usually every few years –when I could see, ‘Oh, this is why God put me in that place at that time.’ The last several years that just hasn’t been so. Now, in the middle of this situation, it still isn’t there.”
For most of us, Thanksgiving Day is all about the family experience. This year that experience is going to be dramatically different for Lucy, a Catholic school teacher from Peoria, Ill. Within the past two years, both of her parents died. Her mother passed away after a long struggle with Parkinson’s Disease. Her father died after a short battle with lung cancer.
“This month is tough. Mom died this month,” she said. “Dad’s birthday will be Thanksgiving Day itself. Thanksgiving has always been our biggest holiday together as a family. I’m not dreading it: Since we will be celebrating in a different place, it won’t seem like the other Thanksgivings we’ve spent together exactly.”
It’s not easy to daily cultivate a grateful heart in the face of suffering, heartbreak and loss.It becomes even more difficult when one’s life is foiled against the Norman Rockwell images of Thanksgiving and Christmas we all anticipate this time of the year. And yet, St. Paul instructs us to “Give thanks in all circumstances (1 Thessalonians 5:18).”
Lucy says, “Oh, I am able to daily give thanks for the path that my parents set me on, but that is the past. I have a much more difficult time giving thanks when I can’t see what lies ahead.”
John acknowledges that these holidays will be more difficult than those in the past. “The holidays have been difficult the last few years mostly because of the strain in my family. Combine that with the loneliness that I think most of us CatholicMatchers feel – especially those of us over 35 – and they’ve just been really tough times. Honestly, I don’t expect that to change too much this year. I’ll be more grateful for the company. But the longing that comes with being 40 and single when you never intended to be will be as acute as ever.”
Resisting self pity
Emily gives voice to what many of us feel this time of year when we honestly reflect on our lives and resist the allure of self pity: “This year I really do have a lot to be thankful for. I just need to keep reminding myself of that.”
John is thankful for having a place to live, money to live on and work to go back to when he is well enough. “As for giving thanks, being thankful, well, I really am amazed that an illness like this can even be discovered, let alone treated. I am grateful for the help I’ve had from family and friends.”
Lucy’s Catholic faith has been a source of much of her comfort. Being present for her father’s last reception of the Blessed Sacrament and anointing of the sick this summer is a cherished memory. During this difficult month she is grateful that she is Catholic. “Of course, I am thankful for my faith. It is inconceivable to me how anyone battles such obstacles, ordinary though they may be – eventually loses their parents, while it is life shattering to their world at that time, it is still a part of ordinary life to all humans as they mature – without the aid of faith.”
As Emily talked more about the things she is thankful for this year, it became apparent to her that God has indeed opened her life for new things, that He will take the bad things and make them opportunities for growth, abundance and happiness.
Hope is welling up in her, as it is in John and Lucy. She echoes my own thoughts about the future, saying, “I’m excited to see where my life will go from here. I know God is up there with big plans for my life. I just need to figure out what those plans are.”
Thank you, God.