Gratitude

“Over the river and through the woods…”

I lived in the city growing up. My grandparents lived in the country about thirty miles from us. We visited them most Sundays, year round, from the time I was born through high school. Although this is not a road to their place, it brings back memories of our Thanksgivings there.

Topping the list of the downside of going to Grandma’s house was the two-hole outhouse (Who ever thought two holes was a good idea?) with pages of the Sunday Supplement covering the walls, spider webs in the dark corners and, well, the odor. When I was little, I had to be convinced that I wouldn’t fall in and nothing would come out of there to bite me in the butt. Because the house was heated by a wood stove in the back room, aided at times by the kitchen stove, the downstairs was warm enough in the winter time, but I froze upstairs, napping under three or four blankets with my clothes on. With the exception of my father and me, the men in my family were very much into sports—and smoking cigars. So while they were watching “the game” and the women played cards around the kitchen table, it fell to my dad to keep my sister and me occupied. And that leads me to the upsides.

My dad took us on walks to the nearby Clermont County Fairgrounds, where we would wander around the empty livestock stalls and climb the steps of the grandstand that overlooked the oval buggy track. In the summertime we would go to the corner market where, out in front, there was a bin where we reached in and fished among the blocks of ice for a bottle of pop.

Of course at Thanksgiving the main event was always the meal. The scene in the dining room was straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting. Grandma was known for her cooking, so the long table was pulled out even further to accommodate all its leaves, and extensions were added as needed. There could be fifteen or more people seated around the table, passing turkey with stuffing, ham, mashed potatoes and gravy, green bean casserole, corn, peas, carrots, cranberries… Then came the cherry, apple and pumpkin pies. Years later I realized that she had been making everyone’s favorites.

Like forgiveness, gratitude spoken out loud delivers benefits to those who express it as well as those to whom it is expressed. For instance, studies show that the simple act of saying “Thank you” makes people more likely to seek an ongoing relationship. So whether you thank a stranger for holding the door or you send a quick thank-you note to a co-worker or client who helped you with a project, acknowledging other people’s contributions can lead to new opportunities.

Robert Emmons, a leading psychologist, says in his book Gratitude Works!: A 21-Day Program for Creating Emotional Prosperity, that gratitude effectively increases happiness and reduces depression. A University of Kentucky study found that grateful people are more likely to behave in a prosocial manner, even when others behave less kindly. Subjects were less likely to retaliate against others. They experienced more sensitivity and empathy toward others and had less desire to seek revenge. The researchers also found that grateful people sleep better, tend to have higher self-esteem, experience less stress and exhibit greater resilience when under stress. Rigorous testing is currently underway to verify the results of another study that suggests that, because gratitude is correlated with positive emotions, it may contribute to longevity.

Giving thanks at our Thanksgiving dinner has always presented me with a conundrum. The list of things I’m thankful for is impossibly long, so I have to prioritize when speaking them out loud. Words are inadequate. So I say to myself that I am grateful for (capital “E”) Everything.

As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.

John F. Kennedy

About This Image

Title: Amish Country Road

File #: DC5729

Location: Walnut Creek, OH

My practice on overnight trips to Amish country in mid-state Ohio is to drive on the gravel and dirt roads, wherever I see horse and buggy tracks. At “magic hour” in the evenings, I tend to drive a little faster so as to cover as much ground as I can while the sun is going down. In this instance I stopped, literally in the buggy tracks, because the setting sun was strongly backlighting leaves in the dark forest.

With the sky so bright and the forest so dark, I set the camera on “automatic” to see what would happen. Reviewing the image on the viewfinder, I was amazed to see that it had captured some detail in the trees but left enough definition in the highlights that the sunset was apparent. I didn’t need to take another exposure.

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