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Though it doesn’t have the magical music of Christmas or the whimsical fun of Halloween, I love Thanksgiving. The food is rich and the company is choice and somehow we never mind that a meal that took many hours to prepare gets consumed in a matter of minutes (it helps that we’re often left with delicious leftovers that arguably get better by the day). As author Andrew Lane put it, “No other nation has a celebration exactly like it. It does not honor a victory, mark a revolution, or commemorate the birth or death of a national hero. It is the great holiday of the common people.”
And as a nod to those first common people and their struggle to survive and the gratitude that brought them to that original feast, many American families share a tradition of placing a few grains of corn (or candy corn) next to their plates to remember the slim rations that were once a daily reality for our pilgrim forefathers. Some even choose to go around and name something they are grateful for, to correspond with each grain.
It was in the middle of such of an exercise this year (at an early celebration) as I listened to each person and enjoyed getting the little glimpses into their souls that come with hearing what someone considers markedly valuable in their life, that I found myself filled with longing and not just gratitude. It was not the longing of comparison or lack, not the shrinking feeling that my blessings aren’t enough. It was a whiff of the person I hope to be and the things that I still have to do to get there.
I’ve since wondered whether such longing is ingratitude. Is there a place for hunger in the midst of so much abundance? Is there a place for yearning for more in the midst of a season of Thanksgiving?
I’ve concluded that, as I understand it, longing and gratitude need not be mutually exclusive. In fact, they may be crucially and irrevocably connected.
My life is full of endless things for which to be grateful. I have the fullness of the Gospel in my life. I live in a country that is truly a land of opportunity for me. I am healthy and strong. My family members are some of my closest and dearest friends. The world is full of infinite ideas and thoughts and stories and discoveries to engage my mind and enrich my thoughts. I fall asleep every night next to someone I can’t believe I get to be with, in a house we worked very hard to buy together.
My life feels full and I will continue to try to always acknowledge the Lord’s hand in it. For the definition of ingratitude is not failing to see all you have, but failing to see where it comes from like pigs that happily eat acorns without noticing the tree from which they are growing.
And yet I have deep desires to accomplish much more in my life than I have to this point. I want to create and contribute and cultivate a braver, more diligent iteration of myself. I want more. I want to be more. I ache for it and in my most faithful moments, I believe I am capable of it. In my mind, this persistent, tugging craving is actually as closely connected to gratitude as any quiet prayer of thanksgiving or contented afternoon of looking around at your life and swelling with joy at what you’ve already got.
After all, to the untrained eye, in the parable of talents given in Matthew 25, the servant that was given one talent and hid it in the earth was merely protecting what he’d been given and showing gratitude by taking care of it. But the Lord hasn’t asked us to sit on His gifts, to go around in circles year after year and just be glad that we still have them. He has asked us to make something of them. “For of him unto whom much is given much is required” (Doctrine & Covenants 82:3).
To illustrate it another way, I want to call to your memory a scene from perhaps the greatest fictional story of redemption ever written, Les Miserables. Jean Valjean has just been released from 19 years’ imprisonment and after being turned away by innkeeper after innkeeper, finds his only compassion in the home of the Bishop of Digne, who readily gives him shelter, food, and Christian kindness. Valjean repays this kindness by making off in the night with the valuable silverware from the bishop’s home.
When he is caught by the police and brought back to the Bishop, the police inform the clergyman with skeptical sneers that this convict told them the silver was a gift. Instead of turning Jean Valjean in, as was his legal right, the good Bishop tells them all that not only was the silverware a gift, but that the former prisoner forgot to take the gifted silver candlesticks as well.
When the police have reluctantly disappeared, the Bishop tells Valjean the following (as beautifully adapted to music by Claude-Michel Schönberg and Herbert Kretzmer):
But remember this, my brother
See in this some higher plan
You must use this precious silver
To become an honest man…
The Bishop of Digne did not just show this man the charity of setting him free, he showed him the true charity of expecting something more from him. Valjean was not simply gifted this life-changing silver, he was admonished to use it to be something more than what he had become.
President James E. Faust said, “A grateful heart is the beginning of greatness.” Acknowledging our blessings is not meant to be merely a salve to fill life’s pits so we can be contented where we are. It is a tool to help us recognize our resources so that we can use them to move onward and upward. Gratitude brings the Spirit into our lives and among the great gifts of having the Spirit, is being reminded of a greater version of ourselves that exists and is waiting to be uncovered and cultivated. Cue the longing; but with it comes the empowerment of spiritual direction helping us understand how to get toward that person we long to be.
As Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf put it, “we are made of the stuff of eternity.” With that as our history and our future, how could we not be filled with longing during our brief sojourn on this time-bound earth? As C.S. Lewis said, “If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.”
To seek in our deepest gratitude to find permanent fulfillment that will carry us and require little more than reminders of our current blessings to keep us content, is to deny something that is deeply ingrained in our divine DNA. To be satisfied with less than our eternal potential is to pretend that we are different creatures than we really are.
We are made for yearning, not just satisfaction. We are shadowy versions of our true selves living in a shadowy version of our true home. Gratitude and repentance and forgiveness are the heavenly tools we use to cut the cords that hold us back, but once freed we would be ungrateful indeed to not move forward from the place of our previous bondage.
Much like the pilgrims came to this land seeking religious freedom, the early Church pioneers set out on the trail west desiring the same. As Elder Uchtdorf said, they “maintained a spirit of gratitude during their slow and painful trek toward the Great Salt Lake, even singing and dancing and glorying in the goodness of God.” One of the songs they famously sang repeatedly declares that, “all is well, all is well.” They could glory in God and say that all was well, but that would not stop them from getting up every morning and continuing to put one aching foot in front of another to get somewhere different than they were, to strive toward a better place they longed to be in.
Likewise, we can sit at our Thanksgiving table this year and be speaking truthfully when we gratefully declare that for us too, “all is well”. And when that quiet voice inside our heart whispers its secret desire to be much, much more and not settle here, we can know that it is not ingratitude. We are just remembering as the apostle Paul said, “that [we are] strangers and pilgrims on the earth” (Hebrews 11: 13) and that the purpose of this life is not just joy, but progress.