A sign outside of a local church had a short but profound message: “Give thanks.” We could all do more of that.
While the tradition of giving thanks to God for the harvest was well established in Europe, the first Thanksgiving of the Pilgrims in 1621 offered gratitude more explicitly to the Wampanoag tribe, who had taught the Pilgrims to grow corn and had helped with supplies of food during their first winter. Sadly that gratitude to Native Americans for their life-saving assistance did not last long.
Our national Thanksgiving celebration was proclaimed by Abraham Lincoln in 1863 in a futile attempt to forge a sense of unity between North and South during the Civil War. He had been influenced by the efforts of the writer Sarah Josepha Hale, who was an advocate for ending slavery, for higher education for women, and for women entering the work force. She was a national patriot, advocating the preservation of Washington’s home at Mount Vernon, the building of a monument at Bunker Hill, and the unifying spirit of Thanksgiving. Lincoln was the fifth president to whom she wrote requesting that Thanksgiving become a national holiday.
At Thanksgiving many families say what they are thankful for. It is important to remember and articulate those things in our lives for which we are most grateful. But the thanks given around the dinner table are often not directed at anyone. The real power of “thanks” comes when they are given freely to another person.
To give thanks, we are often urged to give, to make donations of time or money to deserving causes, like the homeless, animal shelters, or senior centers. That is a form of paying it forward, a phrase originated a century ago by Lily Hardy Hammond in her 1916 book “In the Garden of Delight”, long before the film “Pay It Forward” was produced in 2000. She wrote, “You don’t pay love back; you pay it forward.” Turning our sense of gratitude for the bounties we enjoy into good deeds for others is an important social glue. But this form of thanks also does not reach the people to whom we owe our gratitude.
I don’t believe it is possible to say “thanks” to people too often. Great leaders I know use frequent gestures of public thanks to encourage and motivate. Giving thanks brings people together in relationships of support, appreciation and trust, and encourages our best behavior toward each other.
We all need appreciation. When our random acts of kindness are acknowledged with thanks, we feel empowered to continue our generosity. Thanks can lead to more thanks.
Thanking someone is not always easy. It might acknowledge that another person’s help was needed, that they had power we didn’t have. Giving thanks, though, can level those differences by evening the score.
Sometimes people have difficulty accepting thanks. Yet even when someone says, “Oh, that’s nothing,” they may appreciate the thanks.
I am thankful for my good health at 66, but it would be very easy to forget the many doctors who have employed their extraordinary skills to keep my body functioning. From the regular ministrations of my chiropractor, Jackie Lausen, to the emergency intervention of my eye surgeon, Lanny Odin, doctors doing their jobs have earned my personal thanks for their work. Thanks should be given not just for unexpected favors, but also for normal services.
Although I expect my children to be kind to their father, I also thank them for love I don’t take for granted. The less we take for granted, the more we will say “thanks”, the more appreciation is spread to another person, the more joy in giving is shared. Good givers don’t need thanks, but always appreciate them.
Thanks for reading my words.
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, December 2, 2014