It’s time for the traditional Thanksgiving column, a litany of “ain’t it great?” accounting that totals up all of the things for which we’re supposed to give thanks.

Family, friends, health, wealth, happiness—for most people the list is lengthy, and even if some of the items are absent, the goal of the holiday is to express gratitude for what we have, not what we don’t.

Noble sentiments, but I’d like to take a slightly different tack: To me, giving thanks is about seeing potential improvement in the midst of failure, the possibilities of success in defeat, the chance to gain ground no matter what the odds against us.

Because it’s easy to be grateful after the fact when we’re blessed with prosperity, with career accomplishment, with the love and strength of an extended family. If you’re not down on your knees—and way more often than once a year—giving thanks for those blessings, something’s radically wrong.

To me, the special occasions in life—birthdays, anniversaries, holidays—are for taking a deeper, more contemplative look at our lives. Not just whispering “thank you” but using the event to gain some insight into how we make ourselves and our chosen professions a bit better.

Here’s the three filters I try to apply:

› Ordeals. We all experience personal and professional trials, times when the wheels come off, the structures that support us break down and life suddenly seems to be ganging up against us. The old saying that you learn more from failure than from success is one way to summarize it, but what matters is whether we learn from our misfortunes, and whether we emerge from being tested with greater resolve, with a deeper knowledge of our own strengths and weaknesses.

Professionally, I’ve chronicled both individuals and organizations undergoing wrenching disruptions and setbacks. It’s not pretty (although it makes for a compelling story), and as a journalist you rarely get to go back later and explore the aftermath. On those few occasions where I have, the people involved inevitably lament their ordeals but admit that the lessons they learned were invaluable. And for that they’re grateful.

› Opposition. Any time you take a stand in life—religious, political, professional—there’s someone ready to critique and criticize your choices. It’s nature at work—human nature.

But think about it: Without opposition, do we really examine our beliefs? Without somebody challenging what we say and what we profess, do we develop as strong a sense of why our choices matter? Without an opposing viewpoint, how many of us take the time to articulate the foundations of our professions, our values, our lifestyles?

Admittedly, when you earn a living crafting stories about people and events you hope are interesting enough to command some readership, the battles that take place daily between those engaged in animal agriculture and those who loathe its very existence is the proverbial manna from heaven. But in every area of life there’s room to be grateful for those whose opposition helps us to sharpen our stances and clarify our beliefs—and in the end, to gain some respect for those who think differently than we do.

› Opportunity. Among all the gifts we’re given, I truly believe that nothing is more important than opportunity. It’s the chance to right some wrongs in life, to make amends for past missteps, to forge a better future for all those who follow our footsteps personally and professionally.

When we miss or ignore those chances, it’s also the source of the greatest agonies in life most of us will ever experience. But if I’m given just one more opportunity to make good, to do better, to reach out again for a way to make a difference for those we care about, then I’m grateful beyond measure.

On Thanksgiving, as well as those other 364 days with which we’re blessed each year. ÿ

 Dan Murphy is a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator