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Thanks for Thanksgiving

Making a case for gratitude and forgiveness

The fourth Thursday in November marks a time when we pause to give thanks. For some, the year’s “harvest” has been bountiful. For others, less so. Regardless, amid family, friends, food and football lies a common appreciation for what unites, as opposed to divides, us.

That is always cause for celebration.

What may be lost in the equation, however, is the transformative power of this relatively simplistic, hardly commercialized holiday to impart important life lessons to young people … and maybe even to those raising them.

What are they?

By definition, Thanksgiving represents the perseverence of a people sometimes challenged by war, weather and the vagaries of strife. The same could be said today, more than two centuries after President George Washington announced the first such celebration and 151 years since President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation creating precedent for an annual national day of thanksgiving. Prior to that point, celebrations had been observed only by some states, mostly nothern, and on a timetable of their choosing.

Lincoln’s words captured the blessings of “fruitful fields and healthful skies,” preservation of peace despite aggressions, obedience to laws by which we are governed, and advances made possible by plough, shuttle, ship and axe. Perhaps most enduring are references to blessings that “cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart.”

Embedded in these traditions and those words are textbook-ready teachings about resilency, joint sacrifice, common gain and common good, respect for others and a coming together of church and state.

Among other things to be grateful for.

Even the modern-day presidential ritual of “pardoning” a turkey so it may live out its full life on field and farm speaks to the meaningful construct of forgiveness, something we seem to hear little about as we, and our children, careen from one trouble, one task or one technology to the next. Yet learning to forgive those we believe have somehow harmed us is an important tenet of moral development, character education and mindfulness.

It is also a part of healthy emotional development or “emotional intelligence,” a term made popular by psychologist Daniel Goleman in his book “Emotional Intelligence – Why It Can Matter More Than IQ” (Goleman, 1995). Goleman notes that social-emotional learning (SEL) is “the active ingredient in programs that enhance children’s learning while preventing problems such as violence.” He says, “Now the case can be made scientifically: helping children improve their self-awareness and confidence, manage their disturbing emotions and impulses, and increase their empathy pays off not just in improved behavior but in measurable academic achievement.”

Among the findings related to SEL and documented by Goleman are characteristics or expectations of different age groups. For example, by the middle school years children should be able to figure out what causes them to be stressed or what motivates their best performance. And by high school, SEL skills typically include communicating in ways that resolve conflicts and negotiating for win-win solutions.

Nevertheless, where conflict exists the question often boils down to “forget or forgive?” One is an act, the other a process. But it may be the process that is most helpful in the end.

Dr. Everett Worthington, professor of psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University, who has studied forgiveness since the murder of his mother, lays out both “decisional forgiveness” and “emotional forgiveness.” Whereas decisional forgiveness marks the “letting go” of anger or hurt and moving on, emotional forgiveness replaces such negative feelings with ones of compassion, sympathy and empathy. In turn, according to Worthington, these feelings elicit a reduction in stress and all the emotional baggage it portends.

In a sense, decisional forgiveness may be seen as a means to restoring a relationship and emotional forgiveness as one of restoring oneself.

Both are good. Both are important. But how to begin?

Worthington has created a roadmap he refers to as REACH.

• Recall the hurt while making up your mind to not be hurtful in return.

• Empathize with the other person, putting yourself in his or her place while talking through your feelings.

• Make an altruistic gift of forgiveness.

• Commit to that forgiveness, even writing a note to declare it.

• Hold onto that commitment by reminding yourself of the gift.

The individual nature of this process has a broader application to organizations and institutions through a disciplinary paradigm known as “restorative justice.”

Restorative – as opposed to retributive – justice is a systematic implementation of philosophies that dictate responses to injustice. Those actions attempt to right wrongs while intentionally including all those affected: the perpetrator, the victim and the community. In schools, for example, this approach has been used to promote closer relationships among students, teachers and administrators while encouraging young people to think of meaningful reparations for misdeeds and to develop empathy for others.

In many ways, and all across the land, Thanksgiving is an important day, inclusive not only of others with whom we celebrate and express gratitude but also of life lessons about determination and resiliency, empathy and forgiveness, labor, love and justice for all.

And for that we can say, “Thank you, Thanksgiving.”

Stephen Gray Wallace is president and director of the Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE), a national collaborative of institutions and organizations committed to increasing positive youth outcomes and reducing risk. He has broad experience as a school psychologist and adolescent/family counselor and serves as senior advisor to SADD, director of counseling and counselor training at Cape Cod Sea Camps, a member of the professional development faculty at the American Academy of Family Physicians and American Camp Association and a parenting expert at and NBCUniversal’s For more information about Stephen’s work, please visit

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