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This Thanksgiving Weekend, Thank Those Who Packed Your Parachute

on Wednesday, November 22 2017. Posted by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg

Years ago, someone gave me a Tony Robbins CD to listen to. I was excited and eager to hear the wisdom of one of today’s greatest motivational speakers. He introduced his talk by saying that he has the secret to both happiness and success. If you follow his advice and begin each and every day of your life exactly as he prescribes, he can all but guarantee you will find yourself happier, and able to achieve your goals and dreams.

The secret to happiness and to achieving success, he said, is to start every day of your life by expressing gratitude. As soon as you wake up, before doing anything else, say thank you. Be grateful and appreciative for being alive, having a roof over your head, having your health if you are lucky, your family, etc.

He continued that it isn’t enough to think appreciatively, but you need to start your day by verbalizing and actually saying thank you out loud. If you do, Robbins announced, the rest of your day is guaranteed to be successful and happy.

What Tony Robbins is teaching in the 21st century is correct, but for me, and for you, and for Jewish 3-year-olds around the world, it was nothing new. Judaism has taught this exact principle since its inception thousands of years ago. From an early age, we teach our children that the first words on their lips every morning must be Modeh ani lefanecha, I am grateful to you God for the fact that I woke up, that I am alive to see another day, for the wonderful blessings in my life and for my relationship with You. It has been inculcated within us from our youth that we don’t wake up feeling entitled, deserving and demanding. Rather, we wake up with a deep and profound sense of gratitude, appreciation and thanks.

In fact, the Chiddushei HaRim, the first Rebbe of Ger, says we are called Yehudim, Jews, after our forefather Yehuda, because like the source of his name, we are to be characterized by gratitude. In this week’s Parsha, Leah gives her son the name Yehuda; our rabbis note that Leah was the first person to truly say thank you.  Her gratitude wasn’t momentary or fleeting, rather it was captured in her son’s name in perpetuaty to reflect her desire to continuously and constantly be grateful.  Rav Yeruchem Levovitz explains that every time Leah said her sons name, she would be reminded of how much she had to be grateful for.

A couple of years ago the Wall Street Journal had an article entitled, Raising Children With an Attitude of Gratitude, Research Finds Real Benefits for Kids Who Say ‘Thank You’.  The author, Dianna Kapp, writes: “A field of research on gratitude in kids is emerging, and early findings indicate parents’ instincts to elevate the topic are spot-on. Concrete benefits come to kids who literally count their blessings.  Gratitude works like a muscle. Take time to recognize good fortune, and feelings of appreciation can increase.”

The mere act of giving thanks has tangible benefits, research suggests. A 2008 study of 221 children published in the Journal of School Psychology analyzed sixth- and seventh-graders assigned to list five things they were grateful for every day for two weeks. It found they had a better outlook on school and greater life satisfaction three weeks later, compared with children assigned to list five hassles.

“The old adage that virtues are caught, not taught, applies here,” says University of California, Davis psychology professor Robert Emmons.  Parents need to model this behavior to build their children’s gratitude muscle. “It’s not what parents want to hear, but you cannot give your kids something that you yourselves do not have,” Dr. Emmons says.

Everyday actions may be even more important than big efforts, researchers say. “Express gratitude to your spouse. Thank your kids,” Hofstra’s Dr. Froh says. “Parents say, ‘Why should I thank them for doing something they should do, like clean their room?’ By reinforcing this, kids will internalize the idea, and do it on their own.”

A fantastic exercise is to go around the dinner table as frequently as possible and ask everyone to share something specific they are grateful for that day.  It can be something someone else did for them, or something they feel Hashem did for them.  Either way, it will create an atmosphere of gratitude that will continue to spill over.

Another great activity is to keep a gratitude journal and never go to sleep without identifying a few things to be grateful for that day.  Dr. Robert A. Emmons of the University of California, a pioneer in research on gratitude, conducted a study in which he and his colleagues divided participants into three groups, each of which made weekly entries in a journal. The first group identified and wrote five things they were grateful for.  The second group made a daily list of five daily irritations, and a third control group listed five events that had affected them in some way.  The study concluded that those who kept a daily gratitude list felt better about their lives overall, were more optimistic, and reported fewer health problems or doctor visits than the other participants.

There are numerous apps and tools for keeping a gratitude journal that will remind you to spend time each day identifying things for which to be grateful.  But it is not enough to simply feel gratitude. Thanks must actually be expressed.

Who Packed Your Parachute?

Charles Plumb, a U.S. Naval Academy graduate, was a jet fighter pilot in Vietnam. After 75 combat missions, his plane was destroyed by a surface-to-air missile. Plumb ejected and parachuted into enemy hands.  He was captured and spent six years in a Communist prison.  He survived that ordeal and one day, when Plumb and his wife were sitting in a restaurant, a man at another table came up and said, “You’re Plumb! You flew jet fighters in Vietnam and you were shot down!”  “How in the world did you know that?” asked Plumb.  “I packed your parachute,” the man replied, “I guess it worked!”

That night, Plumb couldn’t sleep while thinking about that man.  He kept wondering what this man might have looked like in a sailor uniform.  He wondered how many times he might have passed him on the ship and never acknowledged him.  How many times he never said hello, good morning, how are you.  Plumb was a fighter pilot, respected and revered, while this man was just an ordinary, lowly sailor.  It continued to grate on his conscience.  Plumb thought of the many lonely hours the sailor had spent on a long wooden table in the bowels of the ship carefully weaving the fabric together, making sure the parachute was just right and going to great lengths to make it as precise as can be, knowing that somebody’s life depended on it.  Only years later, did Plumb have a full appreciation for what this anonymous man did, and this is why he now goes around the world as a motivational speaker asking people to recognize who’s packing their parachute.

I have a friend who set up a couple 20 years ago.  He told me that every single year on their anniversary, this couple not only gets one another gifts but they get my friend, their shadchan, (matchmaker) a gift as well.  For their big anniversary they got him a big gift recognizing that the happiness they have together would never have happened without his bothering to set them up.

I know someone who received scholarships from the schools he attended growing up, from elementary school through graduate school.  When he became financially successful, the first thing he did was write a beautiful thank you note and make donations to each of the schools that helped give him a chance.

As we spend this weekend focused on Thanksgiving, it is a good time to ask, have we given thanks to those who contributed to the lives we are blessed to live?  Imagine if our kindergarten teacher got a note from us thanking her for nurturing us with love.  Imagine if our high school principal, our childhood pediatrician, our housekeeper growing up who cleaned our room, out of the blue got a gesture of gratitude showing that we cared enough to track them down and say thank you after all of these years.  Did we ever properly thank the teacher who was patient with us, the orthodontist who straightened out our teeth, the bus driver who drove us?  Did we express enough appreciation to the person who set us up with our spouse, gave us our first job, safely delivered our children?

It is so easy to fall into a sense of entitlement and to forget to be grateful. Why should I thank my children’s teachers? They’re just doing their job. Why should I be so appreciative to the waiter, or the custodian, or the flight attendant? Isn’t that what they are supposed to do? When was the last time we said thank you to whoever cleans our dirty laundry? Do we express gratitude regularly to our spouse who shops, cooks dinner, or who worked all day to pay for dinner, or in some cases did both? Are we appreciative of the small things like finding a parking spot, recovering from a cold, having a beautiful day, or tasting the sweetness of an apple?

It is so beautiful that we live in a country that dedicates a weekend to giving thanks.  However, we must remember why we are called Yehudim.  We don’t give thanks one day or one weekend a year.  Each and every day must begin with a statement of Modeh ani, and expression of gratitude to our Creator.  To be alive is itself a reason to be grateful, and to be grateful is to truly be alive.

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