Any culture rooted in agriculture is likely to have harvest festival—crops come in in early fall, slaughtering is best done when it’s cool, and people need community before the lean, cold winter comes. Algonquin, Wampanoag, French Huguenots, Cherokee and many other indigenous peoples celebrated the giving of thanks and seasonal events in America.  Modern indigenous cultures from Nepal to Taiwan and even Timbuktu have harvest festivals as well. It is also the season of witnessing the infusion of light into darkness.

But sometimes one person’s thanks is another’s anguish, for example when conquerors give thanks for success at the expense of the conquered (read also oppressed, labeled, stigmatized).  This contrast of how my thanks can be your anguish beings interesting lessons about recovery from overwhelming experiences.

Lesson 1:  Two people will never see the same event from the same viewpoint

That’s a good thing.  While the need for absolute truth (or simply to be right) may drive a need to define the truth for everyone, factually, two people seated at a table have different vantage points and see different things.  While this can make prosecuting a crime daunting, it can offer a great degree of lenience to the rest of us.  We can assert that our view is as valid as the other person’s because we sit on another side of the table.  When all perspectives are treated with respect instead of some treated with contempt, positive learning occurs.  Positive learning leads to growth.  It’s a good cycle to repeat.

Lesson 2:  Gratitude trumps vengeful thinking

It used to be—and still is in many places—that when someone wronged you, you were encouraged to write a hateful letter to them about the awful things they did, but never mail it.  Get it alllll out. Recent research in positive psychology shows, instead, there’s a more productive and long-lasting effect from writing letters to people about the positive impact they have had in your life and mailing those letters, or better yet, delivering them in person.  Imagine all this gratitude going viral.  It also means that the people who wronged you take up less space in your head because you have chosen to fill it with good things.  Just who does the obsession with being wronged by others harm?  Not the other person, that’s for sure!

Lesson 3:  Giving thanks can occur any time you choose to do it

Seriously.  You can do alphabet gratitude (listing things you are grateful for, letter by letter); you can practice saying “thank you” and “you’re welcome” (instead of “no problem!” because… it wasn’t a problem to begin with); you can make a personal discipline each day of finding ten things for which to be grateful.  This practice winds deeper and deeper into your heart and over time, gratitude blossoms.

Lesson 4: You can feel pain about the past, and still be thankful

I can feel immense pain about things that have happened, and let that wash over and through me without blocking my ability to be thankful that I am here, now, able to care for others and be cared for. I can remember how awful things were and I can be grateful for how good they are by comparison.  But being thankful rather than spiteful is a choice – one that takes practice to keep making every day.

Lesson 5: With gratitude, what happens to you does not have to determine who you become

Being grateful for every little thing—and letting what happened to you sit in a neutral space, neither hating nor loving it, neither rejecting nor being grateful for it—transforms negative experiences.  Imagine the energy we put into our misery!  Now imagine if we chose to redirect that energy towards gratitude for every other thing.  For breath and life.  For the potential of love.  For the sunrise, the moon and the stars.  For gratitude and light itself. What might happen if we tended our gratitude with the same degree of attention we afford our injury? Could our gratitude swell to the same size as our pain and even overtake it?

These five lessons help stream light into the dark corners of our psyche. Whether a harvest festival for giving thanks, or a festival celebrating the miracles of light in your tradition, gratitude is the fuel that lights the wick of deep caring and love in our lives.