Thanksgiving – A Day For Thank You Notes?

Posted on Sat 11/26/2016 by


20090506_mcfee_2009By Dr. Robin McFee ~

If the only prayer you said in your whole life was ‘thank you,’ that would suffice.”  ~   Meister Eckhart

Of all the holidays we celebrate as Americans, Thanksgiving couldn’t come a moment too soon!

20161125_churchdrrobinPerhaps influenced by the yearlong divisiveness of politics, which unlike any other election cycle I can remember in my lifetime – the narrative in contemporary society seems to have been supplanted from focus on what we have, and what we can share, to what we have lost. It makes me wonder about Thanksgiving 2016 – is it the same as in prior years? Is it still an American sensibility? For a nation blessed with so many natural resources, and a country filled with people who are inherently good and decent, yet if you listen to café conversations or watch the news, check out social media, or read newspapers, especially in the aftermath of the election, it might appear the fabric of our society is torn, that all is bleak, and hopeless.

It was getting demoralizing hearing more and more people walking around like Eeyore – moping about this and that, when these same folks might want to instead thank their upright walking God for good health, love of family, hearth and home. Sadly it seems more than any other year folks complain about society, politics, or lament that life in 2016 is too complicated, too challenging. Some will dare suggest life sucks or America is not so great, or society is doomed.

Are we so different from the challenges of other eras? Are not challenges or more correctly how we handle them not what forges national (and personal) character – for better or worse?

Would it surprise anyone to learn that in the midst of a civil war, where disease, death, injuries, and deprivation were everywhere to be found, and few families escaped the vagaries of life (death) in 1863, that President Lincoln – at that point the de facto leader of part but not all the states in the US – declared a national day of Thanksgiving? The average person upon hearing about this newly minted holiday might have quipped “thanksgiving…for what?” Yet perhaps that is precisely the genius of Lincoln in providing the leadership through words, deeds and actions to try and heal society’s wounds, refocus people to what really is important, and bring citizens together, even if for just one day of Thanksgiving.

153 years later Americans face a different form of civil war – an ideological and political one, where our nation is polarized to an extent one has to wonder are we close to a breaking point. Additionally, many of our citizens are underemployed, too many suffer food insecurity as kids go to school hungry. The world, including some parts of our nation, is going to heck in a hand basket with wars, human trafficking, drugs, violence, being indentured or outright slavery, disease and death rampant across the globe. And shortly we are again called upon to observe Thanksgiving. One might be tempted to opine “thanksgiving…for what?”

It is times like this I pray for inspiration. Often it requires a long drive to Plymouth Plantation – the site of our first observation of thankfulness as immigrants in the New World.  This Sunday my ride was much shorter, as I drove into one of the last verdant regions of Connecticut, instead of out to cranberry hued Cape Cod. Visiting an historic old church led by a young, energetic, and clearly insightful pastor, her sermon was just what I needed, and maybe you, too?

Feeling gratitude and not expressing it is like wrapping a present and not giving it.”  ~ William Arthur Ward

Reverend Spencer gave an inspiring Thanksgiving sermon titled “To Gratitude and Beyond.” How’s that for a great title?! Reverend Spencer opened the message with an instructional on the 6 points* of writing a good thank you note. She shared how her grandmother taught her, and her mother reinforced the practice from an early age. Looking around the room I could see smiles of agreement, as many of us remember our parents sitting us down with pen and special paper to write an aunt or family friend thanking them for their gift.  It is a practice I continue to this day. Perhaps you can relate? Of course, like the pastor in her youth, I also was initially less than enthusiastic, countering that I said “thank you” in person; isn’t that enough?

The minister then reflected on the value of the exercise, coming to the point where she started to love the practice. Even more than that, she shared the notion that “it is important for people to know that they are noticed and appreciated. And even more than that, the practice of writing thank yous keeps me attentive to people’s generosity and to the many gifts and blessings that surround me.”  She is right. By taking the time to ponder a present, true gratitude can take hold, as you consider the impact of the gift – from the givers thought about the recipient, to the actions of buying, and giving, and the benefit the giftee enjoys.  Put a different way, no one has to do anything nice for you, so when they do, it would seem a good idea to convey appreciation. However, and as an aside, did you know that saying “thank you” is one of the most difficult things for people to say, right up there with “I’m sorry?” Maybe that’s the real genius of encouraging the use of thank you notes? From a scientific perspective the very acts of thanking someone, and even just feeling grateful, are therapeutic, and improve your health and wellbeing. Trust me, I’m a doctor!

Trust the pastor, too. She goes on in her sermon referencing Google searches on gratitude and the science behind it – 31 benefits you didn’t know about; she then refers to sacred texts and practices of faith that invite their adherents into a posture of gratitude., and notes “medical professionals conduct studies to measure the physical and mental health effects of simple practices like writing a thank you note, or listing three things for which you are grateful each day. When people take on such a practice, they often find that there is a positive spiral…and a more positive outlook overall. Like anything else, the places where we devote our time and energy and resources are the places where we grow.”

Pastor Spencer offers a caveat. “Giving thanks is a wonderful thing. But as Christians we can’t stop there. …gratitude alone is not enough. Our gratitude must grow into emphathy and our empathy must grow into action. In Deuteronomy the Israelites are instructed in a rite of thanksgiving, offering the first fruits of their harvest…sounds like a gratitude practice. Action….So as you gather on Thursday, if your are seated before a table, pause for a moment to remember what it feels like to go hungry or wake up without knowing where your next meal will come from – let your gratitude  grow into empathy into compassion… And let those lead you to action. By celebrating our abundance, we can let that joy move us to share it.” Cautioning that she is not asking us to change the world overnight, she suggests “action might be small or great, local or global, immediate or long term….God has called us…let gratitude and empathy grow into action.”


 Be thankful for what you have; you’ll end up having more. If you concentrate on what you don’t have, you will never, ever have enough.  ~Oprah Winfrey

Thanksgiving, at least from my childhood, and probably yours, too, has been synonymous with family time. It was more than a day; it was an event to be planned for, with great anticipation. Cousins, grandparents, friends from far away – all coming together to share more than a meal, to give thanks, and take a moment to celebrate in a personal way just being together. But the meal was never touched until “grace” was said. We all went around the table and said what we were thankful for, and what we did that week for others – volunteerism, giving back.

Thanksgiving is one of those times when, to go Dickens on you, “want is keenly felt” and many enterprises capture Spencer’s triad of ‘gratitude, empathy, and action’ – we can, too. Food banks, soup kitchens, dinners for the poor and bringing meals to a shut in, visiting kids in hospital, even dropping off food, giving a coat or blanket to a homeless person, or writing a check, the list of opportunities to share our bounty are boundless. And maybe that’s why the holiday referred to as “Thanksgiving” was so named. The national day of thanksgiving could have been called a day of gratitude or appreciation. But it wasn’t! Looking closely it is a 2 action word – “thanks” and “giving.” Some wisdom in that nomenclature!


This is one of those critical moments in the history of the United States when our national character will shine through and history may define just exactly who we are as Americans by how we handle our domestic challenges. Will we be the next greatest generation? Alexis De Tocqueville wrote a long time ago “America is great because she is good” – what will be written about us, and who will be the writers in five or ten years?

Whoever said the more one has, the less grateful one becomes may not be wrong. We are blessed by an embarrassment of riches in contemporary America. To be sure we are a different generation than those immortalized by Norman Rockwell and Tom Brokaw, with different expectations. Some might say we have become too blessed to be grateful. I’m not so sure about that. 

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

I’ve heard it said that if you want to forget your troubles, do something for someone else.

Regardless how we solve the problems, perhaps the greatest insight into our national sensibility is how we live through the problems. The greatest generation wasn’t so named just because it won a World War, but because of how the people of that generation handled the deprivations of the Great Depression, followed by a World War. Yet some universal truths came from that era. The spirit of connectedness – the notion of sharing what little one had – there was always room for one more, and last but not least, gratitude for what little one had.

Reverend Spencer is on to something. Building on the message a bit…perhaps that is where we start – listing to ourselves, if not saying with a verbal “thank you note” to the Almighty what we are grateful for, instead of disappointed about, or asking to receive. And then using those blessings to inspire us to action.

As Americans we enjoy a standard of living that far exceeds most other nations. We have freedoms, flexibilities and opportunities most people around the world can only dream about. We have a lot to be thankful for.

For me, I am thankful for the ability to be a physician, a writer with a loyal following, member of the FSM team, someone who is blessed for the camaraderie of a diverse circle of friends, being a mentor, having mentors.  I am thankful to be able to donate my “3 T’s – time, talent, and treasure.” Even the ability to make donations or support worthy programs, or just buy someone a cup of coffee to brighten their day is a blessing more for me, than to the recipient, for which I am grateful. Additionally I can freely worship my faith, am a member of a loving extended family, and citizen of the greatest democracy in the modern world, the USA. Who couldn’t appreciate the efforts of those in the preparedness, military, intelligence, and law enforcement communities who try and protect us from dangers others face on a daily basis. I’m grateful for the kindness of strangers, the enthusiasm of students, and the inspiration of people I meet on a daily basis who overcome challenges and obstacles in the hope of bettering their lives, and that of their children.

That felt good. You try it…..

It is, after all, how we choose to look at things – assuming the best, allowing ourselves to be both inspired, and inspirational.  Maybe, just maybe there is wisdom in having a national day of thanks.

If ever there was an American Tradition that is, well as American as apple (or pumpkin) pie, it is Thanksgiving Day. Rich or poor, young or old, regardless of ethnicity or religion, this venerable holiday designated as a national day of appreciation captures perhaps more than most, the historic optimism, work ethic, and national character we as a people have shared over the centuries with our neighbors, and kin.  Perhaps that is why it is a perennial favorite holiday for most Americans when all is said and done.

Thanksgiving – A day for thank you notes? To echo the words of Reverend Spencer “To gratitude and beyond.”  And may you and your family have a Happy, health, blessed Thanksgiving.

*Example of the 6 point formula to writing a proper thank you note (Courtesy Reverend Spencer)

1.      Greeting – “Dear ….”

2.      Gratitude – “Thank you so much for the …”

3.      Use – “You know how much I enjoy ….. so your gift will be put to good use

4.      Ongoing relationship – “I look forward to seeing you at …… in ….time frame

5.      Grace – “Thank you/thanks again”

6.      Regards/Signature – “Fondly, or Love, or Sincerely and your name” Contributing Editor Dr. Robin McFee, MPH, FACPM, FAACT, is medical director of Threat Science – and nationally recognized expert in WMD preparedness, who consults with government agencies, corporations and the media. Dr. McFee is the former director and cofounder of the Center for Bioterrorism Preparedness (CB PREP) and bioweapons – WMD adviser to the Domestic Security Task Force, numerous law enforcement and corporate entities after 911, as well as pandemic advisor to federal, state and local agencies, and corporations during the anthrax events, SARS, Avian and swine flu epidemics. Dr. McFee is the former chair of the Global Terrorism Council of ASIS International, and is a member of the US Counterterrorism Advisory Team. She has delivered over 500 invited lectures since 9-11, created graduate level courses on WMD preparedness for several universities, authored more than 100 articles on terrorism, health care and preparedness, and coauthored two books: Toxico-Terrorism by McGraw Hill and The Handbook of Nuclear, Chemical and Biological Agents, published by Informa/CRC Press.

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