The generous sauce that lifts this year's Thanksgiving

National traumas have left many Americans despondent yet also grateful enough to be generous toward others. They are both counting and sharing their blessings.

Staff at Phoenix College and volunteers pack up donated Thanksgiving meal bags for needy students at the campus in Arizona.

Too many Americans – 27% – are experiencing a lot of sadness, according to the latest Gallup Poll. That’s up from 18% two years ago. National events, from a pandemic to racial injustice to a recession, have pushed many into desolation at a time of holiday celebration. A few notable families – such as those of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery – will be in mourning. In the homes of 260,000 people, there will be a chair made empty by COVID-19. For tens of thousands, a Thanksgiving meal was available only from a drive-thru charity distribution.

For most Americans, Thanksgiving Day – a holiday that invites people to count their blessings – has been reduced to a family-only, small-turkey, Zoom-waving affair, perhaps one without civic strife over presidential politics. At least 61% of people have had to change or cancel their holiday plans, according to a survey by The Vacationer.

All the more reason why this special occasion for gratitude should be – and is – one of generosity.

During the first half of the year, charitable giving rose 7.5% compared with the first half of 2019, according to the Fundraising Effectiveness Project. That’s a hardy response during multiple crises. In addition, giving toward the prevention of anti-Black racism has climbed to more than $10 billion so far this year, or three times the total spent in the previous eight years.

Worldwide, philanthropy aimed at stopping the pandemic has reached $16.5 billion, according to the charity watchdog Candid. The funding is larger than for any other disaster or humanitarian crisis, the group says.

These figures hint at a deep stirring in the hearts of many. “People are looking to generosity as the antidote to their fear and their isolation and injustice and division,” Woodrow Rosenbaum, chief data officer at #GivingTuesday, told The Chronicle of Philanthropy.

Gratitude is more than a looking back or a recognition of the present good in one’s experience. The apostle Paul writes of being thankful “in” everything rather than “for” something. That requires engagement with others along with an understanding of the spiritual reasons for gratitude.

In his last Thanksgiving address as president, John F. Kennedy wrote, “As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.” In their first post-harvest celebration in 1621, the Pilgrims gathered to “rejoice together,” that is, to evoke joy in others. Their gathering was made possible by a compact, signed aboard the Mayflower, that called for the “body politic” to enact “just and equal laws.” They understood that a pursuit of equality – a goal not yet achieved in the American experiment – was driven “for the glory of God,” which includes a responsibility for the well-being of others.

This year’s wave of giving is driven mainly by the near-universal experience of the pandemic. “COVID-19 has inspired a groundswell of response to human need,” writes the faculty of the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy in the Stanford Social Innovation Review. They also see more “dynamic generosity,” or innovations in giving that are more inclusive. “Everyone has the capacity to contribute in ways that are not prescribed,” they write.

Nearly 40% of Americans tell the online gift processor Classy that they are likely or certain to contribute more to charity this year than last year. As Cicero said, “Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others.” Among those virtues is generosity.

This year, gratitude is wonderfully high for health care practitioners, for volunteers and local officials who worked tirelessly to ensure the legitimacy of the election, and for all those helping to restitch the fabric of a people straining for wider compassion and equal justice. America as an experiment is genuinely important to the world, said former President Barack Obama in a recent interview with The Atlantic, because it “is the first real experiment in building a large, multiethnic, multicultural democracy.”

The founder of this newspaper, Mary Baker Eddy, wrote that Thanksgiving signifies “that love, unselfed, knocks more loudly than ever before at the heart of humanity and that it finds admittance.” As a troubled nation pauses in reflection, all can share its blessings, casting them through the prism of gratitude.

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