A grace-full Thanksgiving

A holiday that inspires not only an ‘attitude of gratitude’ but deeds of kindness and charity is truly worth celebrating.

Jennifer Reynolds/The Galveston County Daily News via AP
The chef and kitchen manager at The Salvation Army's Center of Hope in Galveston, Texas, talk with clients as they serve dinner.

Around the United States this Thursday families and friends will gather to celebrate Thanksgiving. At many tables people will “say grace,” giving thanks for not only the meal but for all the good in their lives. 

The holiday can be a time to ponder what unites, not divides, Americans. With the word “toxic” recently being named “word of the year” by the Oxford Dictionaries, Thanksgiving comes just in time to turn away from toxic and contentious political wrangling to find where thoughts of gratitude might lead. In this way, Thanksgiving can become more than just lip service.

“If you do away with ... the pointing finger and malicious talk, and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,” counsels the writer of Isaiah (as translated in the New International Version of the Bible), “then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday.” 

Today’s self-help gurus have caught on to age-old religious teachings: Being grateful every day of the year not only benefits others but oneself. Gratitude now is seen as promoting more resilience to life’s challenges, better social relationships, greater patience, beneficial weight loss, sounder sleep, in sum better physical and mental health. Some advocate writing down things you are grateful for every day and reviewing the list regularly.

Thanksgiving is often a time, too, for remembering those in need and rededicating oneself to aiding them. It marks the beginning of the end-of-the-year season of charitable giving. This year changes in tax laws mean that most Americans will receive a standard deduction for charitable giving ($12,000 for singles and $24,000 for joint filers) that will far exceed the amount they actually give. That could depress giving from small donors.

Large donors who give more than those amounts, of course, will see an additional tax benefit. But some in the philanthropic community worry that as charities begin to rely more on a few big donors they will become beholden to those donors when determining programs and priorities.

A study at Indiana University found that in a recent 15-year period (2000 to 2014) the percentage of Americans who donated at least $25 to charity dropped from 65 percent to 56 percent. The decline was mostly among low- and moderate-income givers.

Giving should always be first from the heart, not based on calculations on a tax form. But the new tax deductions law may send an unintended signal by offering a deduction whether or not any actual giving occurred. If deductions were instead tied more closely to each dollar given, it might more clearly suggest that society values charitable giving as part of good citizenship.

Participating in the act of giving, no matter how modest the amount, becomes a virtuous habit. As charitable groups often point out, today’s young person who gives a $25 contribution may become a large donor later on.

“Are we really grateful for the good already received?” the founder of this newspaper, Mary Baker Eddy, once asked, adding, “Gratitude is much more than a verbal expression of thanks. Action expresses more gratitude than speech.”

A Thanksgiving that inspires not only an “attitude of gratitude” but deeds of kindness and charity is truly a holiday worth celebrating.

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