Do you feverishly reply, "Busy!" when asked how you are? Saint Leo theology professor Stephen Okey did, until he decided to see life’s chaos not as a burden but as a blessing. Now he says, “I’m good.”By Dr. Stephen Okey,
Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Theology and Religion
I have long had a particular fondness for celebrating Thanksgiving.
In part, I have to admit the several selfish reasons for this: I particularly like the traditional menu, I enjoy the days off from school (or work), and my birthday, Nov. 22, is the earliest possible day in the calendar for Thanksgiving to fall on. Thus, a few times in my life, Thanksgiving has been a day when people are even more explicitly thankful for me.
The true reason for Thanksgiving
But in truth, there is more than this to Thanksgiving.
Despite its complicated history in the United States, Thanksgiving really is intended to be a day for the recognition and expression of gratitude. In its truest sense, it is a holiday, a holy day, in which we are called to rest and relax from the normal weekly rhythms of our lives.
And amidst the storm of traveling, cooking, and occasional familial awkwardness, Thanksgiving offers a blessed moment of calm in which we can be appreciative for the many gifts we have received in this life.
In my own life, I have been deeply looking forward to the calm moment of Thanksgiving for weeks now.
In my second year of teaching at Saint Leo, I have found myself busier than I ever expected to be. I teach four classes each semester, two of which are graduate classes and each requires me to travel one weekend a month. I serve on three university committees, host a radio show for WLSL Radio, meet with advisees, and help with a couple different student groups. I’m the first reader for an honors thesis that is coming to completion, work with another honors student apprentice, and I regularly meet with students about projects for my courses. I co-edit a theology blog, work on articles and a book proposal, and attend 2-3 conferences a year.
Oh, and I’m getting married in January.
Busy-ness not a competition
I say all this not to tout my resume or to compete over who is busier (that’s not a competition I understand). Rather, I say these things to suggest that I deeply understand the storm and chaos of the daily life. Any number of similar things might be said by fellow faculty, staff, and administration. Indeed, the same must be said of our students, whether on University Campus, online, or in the centers.
We are all busy with the things of this world, and as such we are sometimes subject to real stresses. The freedom of a day or two off is immensely attractive. I know I need a day to sleep in.
Nonetheless, I think there is more worth saying about Thanksgiving as a day of gratitude.
Seeing busy-ness as a gift
As I look back over that list of things for me to do, I have a few options.
I can lament how much there is weighing on me. I can look at the as-yet-unfinished stack of grading and feel the cloud descend over me. I can look at the incomplete checklist of wedding to-do items and wish that we had eloped months back.
But I think this way leads to an imbalance in my life.
If I always respond in this way, it leads me to see my blessings as burdens, my opportunities as obstacles, and my vocation as a sentencing.
I also have the option of looking on all these activities with gratitude.
I have the opportunity to work in a great university with an excellent faculty and to teach challenging and insightful students. My honors student is writing a very interesting paper on a topic (Catholic Social Teaching) about which I am passionate, and yet I nonetheless find myself learning new things from his work. The blog I work with has brought me into so many wonderful and demanding conversations that have greatly improved my life as a theologian and educator.
Indeed, each of these things I listed above carries with it immense blessings and opportunities in my life.
It’s not just busy-ness; it’s also a gift.
Choosing a new perspective: gratitude
As such, I’ve been trying something new in recent months. I have a longstanding habit of answering the question “How are you doing?” with some variation on “Oh, very busy.” And trust me, it’s nearly always true.
But I think that approach has accustomed me to seeing those things that make me busy as a burden.
Instead, I’m trying to cultivate a better practice of gratitude for I have the opportunity to do and the immense privilege that comes with it. I’m trying to answer with “I’m good,” I’m working on a really interesting project,” and “I’m really feeling challenged by my courses this semester.” It’s more specific, and I think it identifies the positive elements of what I’m doing. I think it reminds me to be grateful for what I have.
Thanksgiving is a holiday in which we are meant to recognize and express our gratitude for our many gifts in life: family, health, talents, general well-being, and so forth. Taking time on Thanksgiving to reflect on what we’re grateful for can help us to correct an imbalance in which we complain too easily about our many responsibilities.
As a holiday, it is the day of the year in which we are most clearly encouraged to recall all that we have to be grateful for.
Yet, as I teach my theology students, we don’t need to celebrate this only once a year.
What Thanksgiving does is train our recognition. If we can continue that recognition throughout daily life, past this Thanksgiving and on to the next one, then we can come to live a more balanced and healthy spiritual life.
How do you stay grateful amidst the busy-ness of life?
Stephen Okey joined the Department of Philosophy, Theology, and Religion at Saint Leo University in 2013. When he’s not teaching, learning, or talking about theology, he is an above average cook and below average ukulele player.
Image Credit: Angela Waye on Shutterstock.com
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