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In our opinion: Thanksgiving is the perfect medicine for 2019

Americans are at their best when they are humble and thankful in the face of hard times

Abraham Lincoln seated in the chair he had sat in during his tenure in the House of Representatives, Feb. 9, 1864.
Wikimedia Commons

What could have caused President Abraham Lincoln, in the middle of the slaughter and tragedy of a grueling Civil War, to pause and observe that 1864, “has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies”?

What could have moved him to note with such confidence and optimism that, “Population has steadily increased notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege, and the battlefield, and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom”?

These are questions worth pondering today as families gather amid relative peace and abundance to give thanks.

They also ought to contemplate the words of President James Madison when he declared a day of thanksgiving not long after British soldiers had sacked Washington and burned the White House. Without a hint of bitterness, he offered thanks for “all those privileges and advantages, religious as well as civil, which are so richly enjoyed in this favored land.”

They should ponder how President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, at a time when many American soldiers were dying abroad and families at home were enduring ration cards and shortages of essential items, issued a proclamation in 1944 that suggested “a nationwide reading of the Holy Scriptures during the period from Thanksgiving Day to Christmas.”

Roosevelt continued by saying, “Let every man of every creed go to his own version of the scriptures for a renewed and strengthening contact with those eternal truths and majestic principles which have inspired such measure of true greatness as this nation has achieved.”

Americans are at their best when they are humble and thankful in the face of hard times. That legacy is a source of strength for the struggles that may lie ahead.

But Americans save themselves from ruin when they offer thanks in the face of extraordinarily good times, such as these. Prosperity, riches and excess can lead to arrogance, hubris, boasting and mistaken notions of importance. In that seemingly strange and counterintuitive way, good times can be as trying as bad times.

Thanksgiving is the perfect medicine.

Studies have shown that people who develop a habit of expressing gratitude not only are happier than others, they are more optimistic and healthy. They sleep better and tend to avoid bad behavior and addictions. They have better social connections and more friends. In other words, more people like them.

The gratefulness adults show can rub off on children. A few years ago, The Wall Street Journal reported on research showing, “Kids who feel and act grateful tend to be less materialistic, get better grades, set higher goals, complain of fewer headaches and stomach aches and feel more satisfied with their friends, families and schools than those who don’t …”

They also tend to be more humble and reverent. Gratitude can be demanding. It requires self-reflection. It causes people to admit their reliance on others.

Why have so many American heroes understood this? Maybe they became heroes because it was ingrained in them.

The most enriching and ennobling moments in American history are those involving the humility that expresses a reliance on a higher power. That attitude, whether expressed by George Washington praying at Valley Forge or Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower beseeching the blessings of Almighty God as his soldiers prepared for the D-Day invasion of Europe, brings meaning and purpose to the nation’s history.

It also brings meaning to the lives of ordinary people.

On this Thanksgiving Day, we urge all to pause and truly give thanks to God for blessings. No matter how difficult life may seem, that is an exercise that will lift the soul. It’s also an innately American thing to do.