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WILLIAMS: Finding gratitude in difficult times

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OPINION/ANALYSIS:

Thanksgiving is traditionally a time and place to once again gather with family, enjoy the sweet aromas of turkey and cranberries, and to remember all the things for which you are grateful.

But with the recent economic downturn, many people will have their holiday darkened by financial crisis. Families that traditionally host a lavish Thanksgiving dinner may have to cut back. Others who visit their families during the holidays may not be able to afford the costs of travel. Other families may no longer have a home to celebrate in. The housing crisis in this country is now impacting families that once thought they were immune to this Great Recession.

According to a recent report released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, nearly 50 million people - including almost one child in four - struggled to get enough to eat in 2007. That report indicates the highest number of Americans lacking food since the government began tracking the nation's food supply. Particularly hard hit were families with children. According to the report, the number of children lacking dependable food sources catapulted from 700,000 to almost 1.1 million last year. Look around: This year, the holiday season will be marked by long lines at food banks and soup kitchens.

As more and more families are forced to navigate these painful economic times, perhaps we should all pause a moment for perspective. It is hard to be grateful when your stomach is growling. But difficult times are when it is most important to take stock of what we're grateful for. There's something about making a conscious decision to take time in your day to savor the things for which you are thankful that helps you navigate stress. I implore you to take a half-hour tonight and to make a list of the things for which you are grateful.

Don't just go through the motions. Really savor each act of kindness. You will find in this moment of gratitude an affirmation of life. Clinical studies show that gratefulness strengthens feelings of health and well-being. Though gratitude does not make your problems disappear, it can help strip away the narcissism and mean, personal vanity that impede feelings of gratitude.

In their wonderful book, "Words of Gratitude for Mind, Body, and Soul," authors Robert A. Emmons, Joanna V. Hill and Brother David Steindl-Rast observe that "Gratitude is ... more than a feeling, a virtue, or an experience; gratitude emerges as an attitude we can freely choose in order to create a better life for ourselves and for others."

Taking the time to truly consider that for which we are grateful creates a fundamentally enduring perspective that reaches beyond mere politeness; it helps improve emotional and physical health and strengthens communal bonds.

Not surprisingly, the concept of cultivating gratitude is deeply rooted in most religious traditions. In Judaism and Islam, gratitude in the form of prayer forms an essential part of the religious experience. In the Buddhist tradition, meditation is used to help people experience gratitude. In the Christian tradition, the story of Christ forms a powerful trope on gratitude. Christ sought a moral frame of reference that was quite beyond the selfish and materialistic concerns of society. He urged his followers to give away their possessions, live as servants and practice selfless acts of charity and love. He taught that one must first purge his vain and materialistic concerns, before one is able to achieve good. This purging of "the self" was beautifully embodied by Christ's admonition on the cross, "Forgive them father, they know not what they do." Even as they tore at his flesh, Christ acted without malice. His example teaches us that genuine religion means purging the ego and removing oneself from boorishness in order to experience genuine gratitude.

It is clear that we've lost touch with a lot of what Christ's words and actions were meant to teach us. We call ourselves Christians because our parents call themselves Christians, but somewhere along the line, we lost the ability to practice gratitude. Our sense of vanity and materialism get in the way, and prevents us from achieving the truly beautiful possibilities of life. While I will never minimize the importance of material wealth and how it can empower others who are less fortunate, we should never forget that spirituality opens us up to the truly beautiful possibilities of life.

We falter when our self-esteem becomes inextricably tied up in our material acquisitions. We are more than our possessions. No amount of material gain can compare with the joy of tossing a football with your child in the backyard. Simple moments of human interconnectedness are the bedrock of our existence. We cannot allow economic misfortune to darken our view of the truly beautiful possibilities of life. I do not wish financial loss on anyone. But I feel hopeful that these difficult times can have a transformative effect if they remind us that personal vanity is not the road to happiness.

"The Armstrong Williams Show" is broadcast weeknights on XM Satellite's Power 169 channel from 9 to 10 p.m.

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