June 18 • 11:47 PM

The Art of Gratitude

Despite a variety of challenges, the spirit of thankfulness is alive and well in the area

Although her husband SSG Nathan VandenBerghe is deployed, Sarah VandenBerghe and her children Emily, 6, Shane, 4, and Grace, 15 mos. are grateful that he is safe so far and that they’ll be spending Thanksgiving with many of their friends and family at their Dryden Twp. home. photo by Cynthia Pankala.

November 21, 2007
Be content with what you have; rejoice in the way things are. When you realize there is nothing lacking, the whole world belongs to you. —Lao-tzu

Spiritual leaders, philosophers, theologians, and writers have explored the subject of gratitude for centuries. The consensus of their thought and work establishes gratitude as the champion of all virtues, and one of the classical sources of human strength, happiness, and excellence of character. Only in the past decade has the discussion become popularized, and offers a contemporary perspective on living with gratitude and enjoying its benefits in all areas of life.

Perhaps fueling new interest in the "attitude of gratitude" is scientific research that has begun to substantiate that its systematic practice can measurably affect people's lives. Dr. Robert A. Emmons, PhD, of the University of California Davis, is one of the leading scholars on gratitude. His studies link giving thanks to a cornucopia of life enhancements: Better sleep, recovering more quickly from illness, feeling markedly happier, adding years to one's life expectancy, and even increasing earning power. An added bonus, he notes in his book "Thanks!," is that people who practice gratitude seem more pleasant to be around.

What does this mean to us as individuals, to our families, and our community? It's an exciting revelation that can inspire new hope and transformation in challenging times. We can actually help guide the outcomes of our lives through the intentional practice of gratitude, and experience our human condition as one of unshakeable contentment, meaning, and joy.

Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus. - I Thessalonians 5:18

Laura Rickman of Attica Twp., is one of those comfortable women that you could spend the afternoon sipping tea with. She chooses her words carefully, and confesses that she wishes Christmas was celebrated more like the Thanksgiving holiday. She appreciates the simple, undistracted opportunity to thank God for her blessings.

"I have everything I could ever ask for, and feel very much in a grateful state every day of my life," she says.

Laura acknowledges there was a time she struggled to feel that way. She and her husband Rick tried to conceive for more than twelve years. Of course, she says, she was grateful for things in her life back then, but she desperately wanted to have a baby. She gave up on her dream, and began redirecting her life as one that would not include children. She prayed for a new mission, but could not give up the belief that a child's soul was meant to find its way home to her.

Laura was awed by the miracle of her son Charles' conception, and his birth following an arduous pregnancy.

Rick and Laura Rickman and their son Charles, 10, of Attica Twp. are grateful for the opportunity to spend Thanksgiving together as a family. photo by Cynthia Pankala.
"The deep gratitude I feel in my life now far outweighs the memory of old struggles, and the stress of current ones," she explains. "Offer-ing my gratitude actually makes me feel physically and emotionally uplifted."

Charles, now a bright, active 10-year-old, offers his own unique grasp of thankfulness and how it makes him feel.

"Whenever I give a present, I feel thankful inside. Then there's something that starts in my throat, and it feels like a burp, like it comes up and pops out, and it leaves me feeling ticklish all over," Charles grins.

Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms - to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances…—Viktor Frankl, Holocaust survivor

"I wasn't going to do anything for Thanksgiving because he's gone, but now it looks like I'll be having a houseful after all."

Sarah VandenBerghe stands at the end of her drive, and patiently awaits the school bus to return her eldest, 6-year-old Emily. Four-year-old Shane circles her legs in figure-eights while a cherubic bundle named Grace, 15-months, fills her arms.

Sarah gestures to the nearby trees, decorated with tight, efficient yellow bows. "You just missed him," she says, "he was here for three days."

SSG Nathan Vanden-Berghe is with the National Guard, and was called back to active duty last July. Currently serving stateside near the Mexican and Arizona borders, he is receiving specialized flight training, and Sarah knows that he is doing what he loves. She believes he will be deployed again, but probably not to Iraq. In May 2004, her husband completed a 14-month tour of duty there, and she recollects the challenges her family endured. The couple was in the middle of building their new home in Dryden Twp. when the call came. "But I am so proud of him, and thankful to him, and all our soldiers, and their families, for their sacrifice," Sarah says.

Tears suddenly well up in her eyes, her voice breaks, and it's clear that Sarah is overwhelmed with a rush of feelings—admiration, melancholy, and gratitude—all at once. She collects herself as the bus appears, Emily ambles off, and a series of group hugs and kissy-faces ensue.

"You know, growing up I said I would not become an Army wife," Sarah reflects. "My grandfather was a POW in Germany during World War II. My Dad was in Vietnam. I just didn't want it. And here I am. As a result, my gratitude is this strong sense in my heart, an overwhelming happiness on one level. It's just a very proud feeling. You really have to be on the inside to understand it."

If you concentrate on finding what is good in every situation, you will discover that your life will suddenly be filled with gratitude, a feeling that nurtures the soul. —Rabbi Harold Kushner, Author

This is a special Thanksgiving, indeed, for Jose and Rosa Barajas, and their four children. It's

Karen Powell of Almont Twp. is grateful for a cherished memory book from a 2005 Thanksgiving reunion in Savannah, GA created by her sister. photo by Cynthia Pankala.
the first that they will be celebrating as owners and operators of their Almont restaurant, San Diego. In fact, their own family's plans will be postponed to accommodate their restaurant's holiday hours, from 11 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. This year, turkey won't be on the menu, but you can count on fresh, authentic Mexican fare cooked-to-order.

Jose remembers his recent years working in the busy kitchen of a New York country club. There, he says, the dining room was brimming with holiday clientele, and the kitchen wouldn't close until late afternoon. Today, as the owner of his own establishment, he models much of what he does based on those years of observing his successful employers.

"I have to try, and see what happens," he says. "Some people don't want to cook, or have turkey, or maybe they need appetizers. We are here to serve the customers." Rosa nods, and offers a gentle smile to her husband.

The couple are united in their dream and their sacrifice, and know they have rolled the dice in stiff times. Even so, Jose, a solid, intense man, acknowledges the long hours and the pressure are worth it.

"Every day, I thank God I am healthy, I am able to perform my work well, and I have my family nearby," he says, brown eyes softening. "Everything we do here is for my children and the future, everything. So we are very happy for this day, very content, to have Thanksgiv-ing in our restaurant."

Let us rise up and be thankful, for if we didn't learn a lot today, at least we learned a little, and if we didn't learn a little, at least we didn't get sick, and if we got sick, at least we didn't die; so, let us all be thankful. - Buddha

The attitude of gratitude is alive and well, something we can all celebrate on this Thanksgiving holiday.

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