The Best Way Out Is Always Through

Last year I suffered a “home invasion” when 22 of my relatives showed up for Thanksgiving. (Some of them were actually invited.)

We gave thanks for our health, our friends, each other… and a 26-pound bird stuffed with cornbread dressing and surrounded by cranberry sauce, squash soufflé, parmesan-garlic green beans with almonds and sweet potato casserole.

(No wonder the pilgrims had the Wampanoag tribe over.)

With all our blessings, however, one day of thanks can never really be enough.

In his book Discovering the Laws of Life, famed money manager and philanthropist John Templeton recommended a different approach. He called it thanksliving.

That’s not hard when times are good. But for many Americans, it’s tough out there right now. The economy is soft. Credit is tight. And middle-class incomes have hardly budged over the last eight years.

Combine these with the financial, personal, and health issues that every family encounters from time to time and an attitude of continual thankfulness becomes a tall order.

Yet Templeton offered a radical perspective. Don’t just give thanks for your blessings. Be grateful for your problems, too.

This seems wildly counterintuitive at first blush. But facing our challenges makes us stronger, smarter, tougher, and more valuable as parents, mates, employees… and human beings.

Solving problems is what we’re made for. It’s what makes life worth living.

“Adversity, when overcome, strengthens us,” says Templeton. “So we are giving thanks not for the problem itself but for the strength and knowledge that will come from it. Giving thanks for this growth ahead of time will help you to grow through — not just go through — your challenges.”

Circumstances alone never decide our fate. We have the ability to shape our destiny. And it starts with believing we can.

Worries, regrets, and complaints solve nothing. They change nothing. Rather they undermine your health, your social environment, and your quality of life.

Difficult situations are rarely resolved with positive thoughts or gratitude alone, however. It takes another crucial ingredient: sustained action.

Even then, some problems are intractable. Others — like the death of a loved one — are insoluble. In certain circumstances, only an attitude of acceptance moves us forward.

Most of our day-to-day problems, however, are created by the person in the mirror.

We made them. And we can fix them.

According to pastor Preston Bradley, “The world has a way of giving what is demanded of it. If you are frightened and look for failure and poverty, you will get them, no matter how hard you may try to succeed. Lack of faith in yourself, in what life will do for you, cuts you off from the good things in the world. Expect victory and make victory. Nowhere is this truer than in the business of life, where bravery and faith bring both material and spiritual rewards.”

This lesson is best learned at an early age. Once when I was about 7, my father asked me to load some heavy-looking boxes into his car.

I looked them over doubtfully. “I can’t,” I said.

It was one of the few times I ever saw him angry. “What was that word you just used?” he demanded.

“Can’t?” I asked, sheepish.

“I don’t want to hear that word again,” he said. Then he strode off as I (ahem) loaded the boxes.

Journalist Sam Levenson had a similar experience:

“It was on my fifth birthday that Papa put his hand on my shoulder and said, ‘Remember, my son, if you ever need a helping hand, you’ll find one at the end of your arm.’”

It’s not wrong to ask for help, of course. Under certain circumstances, you won’t succeed without it. We could all use a boost from time to time.

But it’s much more satisfying — and dignifying — when we solve our problems ourselves.

In addition to demonstrating what we’re made of, working through our setbacks makes us more sensitive to — and more compassionate toward — the problems of our fellow man.

Look around and you’ll see plenty of good people with more troubles than you. And this is the season to remember them, incidentally. (Although the true spirit of thanksliving means remembering — and giving — all year round.)

Whatever problems you’re grappling with — personal, social or financial — the best course is always to face them with courage, patience, and equanimity.

And, if possible, be grateful. Opportunity often shows up disguised as hard work.

On occasion, of course, our problems are simply bigger than we are. In an address in 1859, Abraham Lincoln recounted the tale of King Solomon:

“It is said that an Eastern monarch once charged his wise men to invent him a sentence, to be ever in view, and which should be true and appropriate in all times and situations. They presented him with the words: ‘And this, too, shall pass away.’ How much it expresses! How chastening in the hour of pride! How consoling in the depths of affliction!”

Whatever your problems, few of them can withstand the onslaught of optimism, persistence and a genuine spirit of gratitude. So get moving.

As the poet Robert Frost put it, “The best way out is always through.”