Cultivating a Spirit of Gratitude

COMMENTARY Civil Society

Cultivating a Spirit of Gratitude

Nov 26th, 2018 3 min read
COMMENTARY BY
Kay Coles James

President of The Heritage Foundation

James is a leader in government, academia and the conservative movement.
When you look back through history, and even around the world today, you realize how blessed we are. Rawpixel/Getty Images

Key Takeaways

If we really want to recover our peace of mind, we need to do more than unplug now and then. We need to rekindle a sense of gratitude.

Even in wartime, he pointed out, our nation was expanding its borders and becoming more industrious — and more free.

Of course we have our problems. Life is never perfect. But when you look back through history, and even around the world today, you realize how blessed we are.

Ever taken a “news fast” or a break from social media? Many Americans have. And who can blame them? Bad news flows from our TVs, radios, newspapers and smartphones in such a torrent that it can wear down even the toughest soul.

But if we really want to recover our peace of mind, we need to do more than unplug now and then. We need to rekindle a sense of gratitude.

Wait, you may say — gratitude? With all the bad stuff going on in the world? With Americans more polarized than ever?

Yes, gratitude. And Thanksgiving is the ideal time to do it.

We’re all familiar with the story of the Pilgrims and the Native Americans who celebrated that foundational feast in 1621. But how often do we recall what led up to it?

The Pilgrims weren’t merely trying to have a party with their new neighbors. They wanted to express their gratitude to the “Indians” and to God for helping them survive a harsh winter and raise a bountiful crop the following autumn.

The same spirit moved Congress in 1789 to ask George Washington, our first president, to issue a Thanksgiving proclamation. Our fledgling nation, after all, had just been established in the aftermath of a great revolutionary struggle. Surely that called for “a day of public thanks-giving and prayer,” as Washington put it.

“Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be,” he wrote.

John Adams and James Madison also issued Thanksgiving proclamations, but Thanksgiving did not become an annual tradition until Abraham Lincoln issued his own proclamation in 1863.

Think about that for a minute. The country was right in the middle of a civil war “of unequalled magnitude and severity,” in Lincoln’s words. The Battle of Gettysburg had occurred only three months earlier, and although it was a Union victory, the war raged on.

And yet while Lincoln didn’t fail to acknowledge this sad state of affairs, what did he highlight in his proclamation? That 1863 “has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies.” Even in wartime, he pointed out, our nation was expanding its borders and becoming more industrious — and more free.

“No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things,” the president wrote. “They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.”

What a lesson for all of us today. If anyone had reason to complain, it was the men and women who were enduring the hardships of war. And not a war that was far away. No, it was being fought, brother against brother, in their own backyards (quite literally in some cases).

If they, amid such horrors, could look for the good in their lives — to raise up grateful hearts for blessings “so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come,” as Lincoln put it — how can we fail to do likewise?

Of course we have our problems. Life is never perfect. But when you look back through history, and even around the world today, you realize how blessed we are.

I’m not just talking about material possessions, I’m talking about the fact we live in a free country that is defended by a world-class military. We live in a land where each one of us can pursue our dreams, and go as far as our talent and determination can take us.

We’re also enjoying a very strong economy. Wages and spending are up. Jobs are so plentiful that unemployment is at the lowest it’s been in years. But let us not forget the many Americans who are experiencing hard times, and who deserve our encouragement and assistance. All the more reason to advocate policy changes that strengthen our economy and raise the standard of living for all.

Former President Ronald Reagan reminds us, “In this spirit, Thanksgiving has become a day when Americans extend a helping hand to the less fortunate. Long before there was a government welfare program, this spirit of voluntary giving was ingrained in the American character. Americans have always understood that, truly, one must give in order to receive. This should be a day of giving as well as a day of thanks.”

So let’s learn to cultivate that spirit of gratitude. On the fourth Thursday in November, yes — and throughout the year. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

This piece originally appeared in The Washington Times on 11/21/18