What does being thankful actually mean?

Jan Kwiatkowski, LMFT, is a psychotherapist and mental health consultant for Aurora Family Service in Milwaukee, WI.

On Thanksgiving Day we acknowledge our dependence.   ~William Jennings Bryan

I found this quote doing one of my favorite things, which is looking for quotes that are really pithy wisdom statements or maybe a new way of hearing an important daily living reminder. I liked it right away because it made me pause for a moment.

I realized that dependence, not a sought after American ideal, is imbedded in this uniquely American holiday. We have the Fourth of July to celebrate our independence. Who needs to think about independence or dependence on Thanksgiving?

There are so many people and things for which I am very grateful. To a greater or lessor degree I am dependent on them as they add meaning to my life. Some of these I could live without and not miss a beat. Some I could not. Some I could literally live without, but my enjoyment of life might be considerably diminished. Being thankful implies a relationship. To be in relationship implies dependence, independence and ideally interdependence. (That is a blog topic for another time.) A simpler way to put it is that nothing happens in isolation.

Part of what it means to be thankful is to be conscious of the gift, benefit or pleasure received. Additionally, being thankful means expressing that consciousness, as well as the gladness that accompanies the feeling of thankfulness. Genuine thankfulness requires a bit more effort than I, and I suspect most of us, often take. Genuine thankfulness requires some pause and reflection about why a person, a thing, and event, a gesture, an object, a specific period of time, a gesture of forgiveness, a second chance or whatever it is, is meaningful for us.

Reflective thankfulness means that we acknowledge our vulnerability as human beings. Conscious thankfulness means we realize our connection with others. It seems too, genuine thankfulness often has a dance-like, reciprocal quality. We have given and taken. The other has given and taken. Those exchanges imply dependence on the other to engage independent selves who are able to achieve an interdependence that is greater than either or both. Whatever the focus of thankfulness has somehow benefited or given meaning to more than one person, it seems we can’t be thankful without somehow being dependent.

When you are pausing to give thanks, whether at a church service, with family and friends over dinner or in a quiet moment, go a little deeper. Rather than list the people and things you are grateful for, pause for a moment and become conscious of the meaning given and taken in the relational act of being thankful. If you can, pause in the meaning and stay with it. My guess is hearts will expand a little flow with gratefulness in ways not experienced.

May the gratefulness this year be conscious, your relationships deepened and the food your eat the best ever! Happy Thanksgiving.

Aurora Family Service helps families overcome challenges, changes and crisis to live well again. We achieve stability and strength for families through counseling, parenting, elder care, financial, career, health and community services.  For more information, visit our website, follow us on Facebook, or call 1-414-342-4560

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2 Responses to What does being thankful actually mean?

  1. Kyle Bazzy says:

    Thank youJan.

    You have put into ink (or pixels) what was floating around in my head. Being thankful is a strong emotion that should be shared. Dependance should not have a negative connotation but rather be rejoiced.

    I believe my dependance, and acute awareness of it, is what allows me to connect with people.

    So, thank you for sharing 🙂 My dependance on you has grown in turn!

    PS – Every Dec. 31st I write thank you letters to people who have contributed to my year. Looking for inspiration in my writing, I stumbled across this article. It is now quoted and linked in each email I am writing. Thank you.

    – Kyle

  2. Ashley Williams says:


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