Where to begin counting one’s blessings on Thanksgiving? Sufficient food and shelter. Happy memories and emotional support from family and friends. Employment. Good health. Living in a free country. These provisions for successful living come to mind immediately for most Americans.
This year though, an inner nudge suggests an addition to the tried-and-true basics, inspired by an observation from the late Truett Cathy, founder of Chick-fil-A restaurants, in his remarks at the annual Dallas Christian Leadership Prayer Breakfast many years ago. “Question: How can you tell when a person needs encouragement? Answer: He’s breathing,” Cathy said.
The philosopher Cicero wrote: “Gratitude is not only the greatest but also the parent of all others.” Last year, in his Thanksgiving column for The Atlantic, on the subject of what it takes to maintain happiness, Harvard Business School professor Arthur Brooks advocated staying in a mode of gratitude because it stimulates the brain’s reward center, makes us more resilient and enhances relationships that endure during times of crisis.
Relying on the wisdom of Cicero and Brooks, if gratitude is the parent of all virtues because it enhances relationships that endure during times of crisis, then surely one of gratitude’s children is encouragement —the act of instilling courage in another person. What better way to show appreciation for another’s importance as a special family member or friend than to encourage him during a tough time?
In the fifth chapter of the first book of Thessalonians, within a span of seven verses, St. Paul emphasizes the need for both encouragement and gratitude. Verse 11: “Therefore, encourage one another and build each other up;” and Verse 18: “Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”
Given the link between gratitude and encouragement, I recently decided to follow Brooks’ suggestion in his Atlantic essay and started a “gratitude list” of those things worthy of thanksgiving. My tweak on his recommendation, in line with Cathy’s observation, has been to keep not merely a broad-based gratitude list, but rather a “gratitude for encouragement” list, whereby certain situations are recorded for posterity in which at times in my past, a person rose to the occasion and provided a lift that made me the beneficiary of the good things that followed.
To me, nothing motivates gratitude like the boost provided by a timely dose of encouragement from someone who cares enough to speak and take action on one’s behalf when there’s real doubt about the likelihood of a positive outcome. Here are the leading entries on my list. Hopefully it inspires others to create their own lists as a means of increasing long-term prospects for better mental health and solidifying important relationships:
- While absorbing the sting of several unsuccessful interviews during my second year at the University of Texas Law School, my best friend and roommate Marvin Blum (who somehow maintained his humility despite finishing second in our class of 550 and receiving offers from every interview he had) gave me a steady stream of genuine affirmation when I needed it most. Marvin’s encouragement allowed me to keep my head up until Ivan Irwin came through with a job offer to work for his fine law firm, which brought me to Dallas in 1978 — where I’ve stayed ever since.
- Despite reeling from the loss of my second law firm’s largest client when it was taken over by the federal government during the savings and loan collapse in the late 1980s, senior partners Bob Payne and Lee Vendig managed to keep everyone positive, refused to lay off anyone and worked their contacts to bring in enough new business to lead us out of the revenue valley.
- When the publisher of my first book went out of business, fellow author friend Ron Rozelle pitched my book to his publisher, Rue Judd of Bright Sky Press, and persuaded Rue to republish my book. Bright Sky later published two of my subsequent books.
- In 2017, when the leaders of my third law firm decided my services weren’t needed (after my being there 20 years) for the execution of their new strategic plan, the managing partner of my current firm, John Shackelford, embraced my skill set, hired me and jump-started the restoration of my legal career. Without a doubt, the five years at the Shackelford firm have been the most satisfying of my 44 years as a lawyer.
- When our son got laid off in a major staff reduction right before the pandemic, and then when COVID-19 hit and no companies were hiring, my friend Kevin Knox, associate dean of the Cox School of Business at Southern Methodist University, turned the situation around by expediting Scott’s enrollment into Cox’s MBA program. Getting his master’s degree opened the door to the dream job Scott now has with a major consulting firm.
Yes, like most people, I have experienced setbacks that threatened to turn my life upside down. Fortunately for me, in each pivotal crisis, key people stepped up, offered encouragement and bona fide assistance that kept me going and helped turn things around for the better. Sometimes, however, encouragement doesn’t produce a quick happy ending. Nonetheless, giving it still provides a much-needed new angle on a tough situation that aids the person struggling to at least see the glass as half full, and can fuel his efforts to weather the storm.
To those on my list who provided immeasurable support when my life journey appeared to be going south, I lift my glass of Champagne on this Thanksgiving Day and bestow my highest level of gratitude. Here’s to you, Marvin; Ivan, Bob and Lee (may all of you rest in peace); Ron and Rue; John; and Kevin!
May my “gratitude for encouragement” list inspire others to look back at life, remember those who lifted despondency up and out of their ditch and proceeded to nuke it, and thereby transformed dire circumstances into great results with their affirming words and deeds.
More importantly, may the reader now not only commence the therapeutic exercise of expressing gratitude to his encouragers and to God (from whom all blessings flow), but also become more proactive in being an agent of encouragement, instilling courage in the downcast but still breathing souls who cross one’s path and need someone to provide support at a critical time that may turn a sour lemon obstacle into a wellspring of lemonade.
Talmage Boston is a lawyer and historian who resides in Dallas. He wrote this column for the Dallas Morning News.
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