Finding Gratitude in Unlikely Places: A Thanksgiving Reflection

Pierce T. Hibbs

"My cup overflows." - Ps 23:5

Within Christian circles, it seems verboten to mention death and thanks in the same sentence, which is a shame, really. Death, no doubt, is an evil intrusion on God's good order, and, as Dylan Thomas wrote, we have every reason to rage against the dying of the light. But death also has a purifying quality--it burns away the dross of thanklessness. It makes the simple seem sacred, and the prosaic extraordinary. At least, it can do so if we develop the habit of looking at life through death.

I lost my father to cancer when I was eighteen. I distinctly remember standing at his bedside in a small white room, heavy with the smell of astringents. The nurses came in to transfer him to another bed while they changed the linens, and as they lifted him up I looked down where his body lay: dozens and dozens of black hairs from his head were pressed into the pillowcase. I knew that they were going to wash those sheets--that my father's hair would collect on some dryer grate, discarded with lint and dust. But it wasn't dust. It was time, finely thread into follicles. Did the nurses know, as they balled up the sheets and threw them into the laundering bin?

I've never been able to look at hair in the same way since. Each time I find a piece of my own falling out (it's happening too frequently now), I look at it as I imagine my father looked at his hair in the last few weeks of his life: fragile but incontestable marks of mortality, dropping one by one. The hairs of our head are numbered (Matt 10:30; Luke 12:7), which we take comfort in. But our days are numbered too, and that's not so comforting; it would be unsettling to witness those truths collide. As my father's son, however, I find it is worth steeping my memory in such experiences. Thinking of his death inevitably brings me to think of my own, which serves to amplify my gratitude, especially when patience or peace wears away.

How does this happen, exactly? The answer lies in perspective. There are two sorts of perspective, as far as I can tell.[1] First, there is the kind meant to foster empathy between two people (or groups of people). As unique individuals, we each have a perspective on the world. But, lest we slip into solipsism, we understand that our perspective is not the only one. "In order to understand other people, we must be prepared to adopt their perspective."[2]  We can make a conscious effort to imagine what the world would look like through another's eyes, and if we do so effectively, we come to a deeper understanding of that person's position or feeling or thought. Empathy then precludes patience, understanding, consolation, and communion.

The second kind of perspective is introspective, meant not to foster empathy so much as to reset the interpretive infrastructure of our heart and mind. As my father's hair on the hospital pillow, the raw material of banality becomes sacred by such a shift in perspective. This fundamentally alters our response certain objects or experiences that we once discarded as trivial or loathsome.

I find this especially helpful when confronted by thanklessness. Nearly every day I meet something that desiccates my heart of gratitude. A traffic jam is common enough. In the middle of rush hour, I find myself pumping the gas pedal, inching up to the bumper of the eighteen-wheeler in front of me, running through a yellow light just to slam on the breaks at the next red. Then I look out the window, often when I get to the top of a hill that offers a view of the landscape: something in the topography draws out memory, and that's when it happens.

I imagine myself in a gated hospice bed, my arms limp, muscles atrophied, hair dropping from my body to the stale-smelling sheets. I think of that moment before my father's death, as they counted down from his last ten breaths. Ten: do you remember the traffic that day on the hill? Nine: yes. Eight: it was glorious, wasn't it? Seven: yes it was. Six: would you like to go back? Five: yes, please let me go back. Four: you cannot go backwards. Three: I know . . . I know. Two: your cup overflows,  even now. One: I know.

The truck ahead of me throws itself into first gear and snaps me out of the reverie. I'm back at the stop light, pushing the gas pedal with less urgency. It all looks glorious now--a queue of cars rolling down a strip of pavement, each of us just wanting to get home, refusing to enjoy wheeling through a world manifested by God's Word. The fading gold-blue horizon, the silhouettes of maple trees, the flock of blackbirds waving as a flag--how did I not see it before? Perspective always comes bearing gifts.  

My former poetry professor, now a close friend, once said that he thought such a practice would be exhausting. I could understand that, but I haven't found it to be exhausting. In fact, I've found it invigorating. It has helped me find gratitude in the most shaping life experiences: the ones that sting. None of us has any trouble processing gifts that draw praise from our lips. It's the ones that enlist our irritation or frustrate our vision of happiness that make the heart dumb. But at the same time, it is pain that gets our attention. Marcel Proust wrote, "Illness is the doctor to whom we pay most heed; to kindness, to knowledge, we make promise only; pain we obey." Hyperbolic, certainly, but there's truth to what he says. We seem to learn little from pleasure and success, but a great deal from pain and failure.

This has been a somber note for Thanksgiving season. But I've been thinking about Thanksgiving, in that boring sense. My mother always asked the proverbial Thanksgiving question each year at the dinner table: "What are you thankful for?" My answers as a kid always felt contrived and dull. I wasn't really thankful. I knew very well that I should be, but my perspective told me that what I had was common. I expected it (in fact, I usually expected more). But maybe the trouble is that I was looking for thanks in pleasure rather than pain.

My perspective has changed a lot since then. My mother doesn't need to ask me the question. I ask myself often enough. When I don't have an answer, I think of those final moments before my life will vanish like a vapor. I draw on death-bed vision to alter my perspective on life, because it never fails to inundate my heart with gratitude. At the moment we leave this world, how true will the psalmist's words be precisely because we are given perspective: "my cup overflows"! Yes, it does, even when I clang it against my hollow heart, asking God for something better. A little death-bed vision is all we need to feel the weight of the cup once more.   


Pierce T. Hibbs (MAR) serves as the Assistant Director of the Center for Theological Writing at Westminster Theological Seminary. He is currently enrolled in the Th.M. program and studying the language theory of Kenneth L. Pike. Pierce, his wife, Christina, and their son, Isaac, reside in Telford, PA.


[1] Vern Poythress points out that John Frame also introduces two uses of the term "perspective." In one sense, it applies to each person having a perspective that is unique to that individual. In another sense, each individual can take on multiple perspectives by choice. See Vern S. Poythress, Redeeming Philosophy: A God-Centered Approach to the Big Questions (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2014), 59.

[2] Poythress, Symphonic Theology: The Validity of Multiple Perspectives in Theology (Phillipsburg, N.J.: P&R Publishing, 1987), 11.