Gratitude and giving in the 1990s

From boyhood, Arnold Resnicoff knew he was destined for military service. His father, a Russian immigrant, saw sending his son into the US Navy as a way of expressing gratitude for his adopted country.

That gratitude ran deep in his family, says Captain Resnicoff, command chaplain for the US European Command. "There was not a day that my grandfather didn't give thanks in the synagogue - not only that he had made it to America, but that there was an America to make it to."

Thanksgiving has been a part of the United States since before the country was founded. And each successive wave of immigrants - from the Puritans on down - has helped enrich this tradition.

"I believe gratitude may be the deepest impulse of American life, maybe as deep as the impulse for liberty," says Michael Novak, a theologian at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

But at the end of the 20th century, the way Americans give thanks is changing. Religious and cultural experts see a more secular society, one in which a sense of entitlement is making inroads against the sense that bounty and peace are gifts from God.

"People mistake material well-being for well-being," says the Rev. Bob Everett, director of the Institute for Jewish and Christian Understanding of Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pa. Being grateful "is a little more than just [saying] thank you for the new car.... Gratitude is thanking God for what we have and [also] what we are able to give."

In the fast-paced, career-oriented '90s, people are more likely to count blessings in terms of possessions, seeing their new SUV or cashmere sweater as a just reward for their hard work, says Mr. Everett. In other words, they're only getting what they deserve. "If God gave us what we deserved, we'd all be in trouble," he adds.

Others attribute the shift to a more insular America, inclined to take what it has for granted, or to a steady decline in regular church attendance.

But as Americans prepare their Thanksgiving Day feasts and await the day's football contests, many are pausing to count their blessings.

For Monica Soderstrom of Chico, Calif., a renewed sense of gratitude came out of her overseas experience 13 years ago when she served as a nurse-missionary in Haiti. "It really showed me how blessed we are [in America]," says the mother of two. "We have clean water, homes, and public education. It helped me refocus on what's really important."

To Mrs. Soderstrom, "the important thing [for me] is to focus on the source of where blessings come from. The more Americans focus on faith, the more they will appreciate what they have because they know it's a gift."

Soderstrom volunteers at her church and works with infants who have been exposed to drugs. "I feel really blessed," she says, "and it's just the most natural thing for it to spill out in my relations with others."

In fact, say many experts, giving is the twin of gratitude. Such expression is found in millions of volunteers who do everything from delivering meals to the elderly to coaching youth soccer.

"Most people relate gratitude to words," says Rabbi Byron Sherwin, author of the new book "Why Be Good?" "But actions express more gratitude."

Others don't see a lack of gratitude in American lives. Mr. Novak, for one, believes that because new immigrants are always coming to the US, they help to continually renew the sense of appreciation for American values and freedoms.

"There's a special fervor among immigrants, because they know firsthand how [different life] can be," says Novak, whose grandfather came to the US from Slovakia. "It's very good for the country, and very touching for the rest of us to be reminded" of what we have.

And there's something to be said, he and others believe, for a country where gratitude is so central to its history.

IN fact, the first presidential proclamation ever was George Washington's Thanksgiving Proclamation in 1789. The national tradition died out by 1815 (although many states continued to celebrate the holiday) until President Lincoln revived it in 1863 during the Civil War.

While other countries may not have a hundreds-year-old traditional holiday, taking time out to say thank you - whether it's once a year or once a day - is universal.

The Iroquois, for example, have thanksgiving celebrations that go back to prehistoric times. The Center for World Thanksgiving in Dallas surveyed 185 countries and found that celebrations of thanksgiving "are spread out evenly all over the globe," says chairman Peter Stewart. "It's totally human." The reason, he says, is because no action can be truly complete without gratitude. "A symphony without applause at the end isn't a completed symphony."

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