Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday, probably because it’s a time to especially acknowledge the gratitude I feel for all the good in my life.
We might find a definition for thanksgiving as “an act of giving thanks”, but I think it means more than that. It goes beyond uttering words of thanks to expressing it in concrete ways. It isn’t focused inward or on me. Rather, my gratitude should impel action outward for the benefit of others.
There are many examples of people selflessly helping others. I think immediately of incidents like:
A New York City police officer who bought a pair of $75 boots for a barefoot homeless man with his own money.
People in my community working at food banks and soup kitchens for the homeless.
Victor Frankl observing fellow prisoners of war coping through simple acts of sharing and encouragement.
These are people engaging in helping acts with no expectation of anything in return.
Why do we do it if there’s no expectation of reciprocal acts of kindness or money?
As a Christian, I might see The Golden Rule as a motivator out of obedience. And for those of other faith traditions, such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Zoroastrianism, and Judaism there are similar guiding principles. But is this really what motivates adherents of any tradition to act for the benefit of others?
In examining my own impulses along this line I feel moved to do for others because I’m grateful for the good in my life which I feel comes from a higher source, or the Divine. Perhaps giving to others as an expression of gratitude is the Divine working in the lives of others.
Spiritual healer and thinker Mary Baker Eddy points out in her book Science and Health that when we give to others, not out of a sense of moral obligation, but rather selfless love, we will not be harmed:
Not only are we not impoverished by giving, but an unexpected result appears for the giver: it’s good for your health.
Stephen G. Post, PhD. has been researching this notion that helping others is actually beneficial to the helper. In his report It’s Good to be Good: 2011 Fifth Annual Scientific Report on Health, Happiness and Helping Others, Post makes these observations:
“My working hypothesis is that one of the healthiest things a person can do is to step back from self-preoccupation and self-worry, as well as from hostile and bitter emotions; there is no more obvious way of doing this than focusing attention on helping others.
“There is solid evidence to support the perennial hypothesis that benevolent emotions, attitudes, and actions centered on the good of others contribute to the giver’s happiness, health, and even longevity. Although genuine benevolence must be chiefly motivated by concern for others, it has the side effect of nourishing the giver.”
Linda P. Fried, M.D., director of the Center on Aging and Health at Johns Hopkins found that : “Older adults who volunteer in troubled urban schools not only improve the educational experience of children, but realize meaningful improvements in their own mental and physical health.”
Perhaps a good example of this is the Catholic nun who volunteered in our local jail for many years. She devoted her life to helping those in trouble with the law to better themselves through various programs. Last time I saw her she was well over 90 years old and still going strong!
Robert A. Barnett says that ”We consistently find that volunteering and helping behavior is associated with a reduced risk of mortality. We see this over and over again in prospective studies that control for other variables, such as baseline health and gender.”
Thinking about this more deeply, what if more of us worked harder to love and help out our fellow women and men? I mean really approach them with compassion, forgiveness, and a longing for their well-being impelled by gratitude for all the good in our lives. Might it make us feel better? Perhaps we would live in healthier, more connected communities.
The implications are profound. I make it an axiom that I can never be harmed by helping others. Now, I see it actually helps my health, too.
While I’m enjoying time with family this Thanksgiving, I won’t forget that at some point the gratitude that I feel will result in action for the benefit of others.