When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Get Thankful

It used to be that, in the run up to Thanksgiving, only the turkey was anxious. But for over a decade, mental health professionals have been warning of an alarming rise in anxiety among children and adults. Financial and academic pressure now share the role of anxiety triggers, along with bullying, the opioid epidemic, and gun violence like our community experienced in Pittsburgh.

A universal response to tragic acts shared by the Jewish community has been to gather in a special place to share sacred words and create memories of comfort. Many also pledge to do acts of loving kindness to help regain some personal control in the face of isolating shock and many more opt to gather with family and friends to restate and affirm shared values. Unfortunately, people are increasingly worried about those conversations turning hurtful rather than healing. Partisanship and ugly political rhetoric leave families and neighbors hesitant to talk about many topics that end in political debate.

In ancient Israel, when the debates between the schools of Hillel and Shammai threatened to escalate towards violence, the sages stated, “These and those are the words of the living God,” and counseled every individual to develop “a heart of many rooms.” They wanted the “arguments for the sake of heaven” to continue, but asked all parties to juggle multiple truths. In his public talk with our community last month, Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer, President of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, brought proof texts from other points in Jewish history where leaders expressed the same healing strategy. For example, while we may strongly disagree about certain policies embraced by various candidates, we all share the value of voting to make our voices heard democratically. We face the same critical issues even though the strategies to deal with them differ. If we could articulate the shared values, we could find room in our hearts to accept that others hold different ways of how the value plays out.

Thanksgiving is a perfect time to practice developing a “heart of many rooms.” Voicing gratitude and listing shared blessings can help calm the storm of dissent and partisanship.

Gratitude is also good for us. Research has linked an attitude of gratitude with a better ability to be resilient in the face of challenges and quickly recover or “bounce back” from obstacles. Kick off your season of gratitude this Thanksgiving with these strategies and continue practicing year-round:

  • Keep a gratitude journal; each day write 2 to 3 “gifts” you received each day;
  • Write a thank-you letter to someone who had a meaningful and positive impact in your life;
  • Use “gratitude prompts,” (from https://daringtolivefully.com/gratitude-prompts), where people can fill in the blank and all answers are valued.
  • On Shabbat and holidays, take a sabbatical from complaining;
  • As a group, compose a Dayeinu (“It would have been enough”) list and read it responsively before your meal. View a sample here https://www.ritualwell.org/ritual/personal-dayenu.

Let the healing start around your table and may it spread throughout the world!

Have a happy and meaningful Thanksgiving.