Thanksgiving: Making a List, Checking It Twice

November 25, 2014 Updated: April 24, 2016

First of all, Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. It’s the simplicity-just a feast day, secular, unrelated to romance, innocent of patriotism, devoid of presents or cards. Not that I do not appreciate giving and getting those. I’m kind of like a Hobbit in that regard. 

The cliché is to joke about the horrors of being stuck at a table with your relatives. Don’t mean to brag, here, but my family is delightful. Sorry!

I think the idea of the gratitude list came from 12-step programs. They, of course, were born in 20th century America, when AA founder Bill W. learned that by helping others he helped himself. An essay on the Betty Ford Center website says, “I imagine that all of us–at one time or another–have heard from a tough sponsor, ‘It’s time for you to write out a gratitude list.’ The symptoms for which this is the treatment are: self-pity, whining, grousing, complaining…”

A Reset

The process of writing a gratitude list is meant to be a reset for the brain. One is to sit with a piece of paper and make a numbered list of good things in one’s life, anything from working lungs to a paycheck to sunlight to a pet to a funny, friendly co-worker.


The purpose is to focus on the good, which would be the opposite of resentment, the opposite of judging. Appreciation is incompatible with jealousy or self-pity. I was talking to a friend (grateful that I have some) and found myself pulling out a long list of resentments, some of them neither current nor significant. It was like when magicians flourish a tiny piece of cloth and then pull and pull and pull until 31 feet of bright, knotted handkerchiefs have emerged.

So I think I am due to write a gratitude list.

It intrigues me that a gratitude list is supposed to be written, preferably hand-written. Writing and literacy may be gifts from heaven, when you consider just how powerful they are. The process of writing such a list seems to be part of a spiritual interaction between intention and hand and heart. I think someday we will learn much more about the human body/mind and its secrets. I am grateful for that mystery, and for my sense that there is much more for us to learn.

Ancient Idea

The idea of counting your blessings is far older than 12-step programs. Ancient psalms and poems are gratitude lists. People have always known that praise songs are the way to go. 

On Wednesday night, while I roast parsnips and carrots, cream spinach, and concoct the essential and fragrant spiced sweet potato casserole for ten (grateful to have so many to share with this year), I will find a moment to write down what I am grateful for.

Then comes the New Year, and I will once again resolve to give up complaining. As the old song says, “You’ve got to accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative. Latch on to the affirmative.” For a pure tonic, listen to Sam Cooke sing that.


*Image of “giving thanks card” via Shuttertock