In this story from November 1981, the multi-talented television star reflects on the therapeutic effects of thankfulness.
To many people the phrase “giving thanks” conjures up visions of a family comfortably gathered at a holiday dinner table. But it reminds me of two especially meaningful incidents in my life–one when I was alone and ravenously hungry, the other a desperate drive down a mountain.
The time I was so hungry was when, at age 16, I had run away from home in Chicago and bummed around the country for a while. After a week, I had no more money; consequently I had no more food.
In Houston one morning I was walking along keeping my eye on the curb. I was hoping to find a coin in the gutter, which would mean buying a loaf of bread, a bottle of milk or even a candy bar and thus blunting the hunger pains.
I must have looked pretty pathetic, because a passerby felt sorry for me and took me into a dim, musty chili joint. I stared eagerly at the giant coffee maker that gleamed and hissed against the wall, and at the rows of steaming frankfurters that lay in open trays behind the bar.
“Just a coffee for me,” said my host.
Not wanting to appear greedy, I asked for coffee and a hot dog. When the counterman placed the hot roll in my hand, I felt a thrill of animal satisfaction. It was almost as if I were able at once to absorb nourishment through the pores of my hand.
For a brief moment before eating. I stared at the honey-colored roll, the brilliant yellow mustard, the juicy, salty-looking meat. I can see it still.
Wolfing it down, I closed my eyes and leaned back against the bar, feeling the wooden railing firm against my tired back. The coffee curled warmly along the lining of my stomach. The frankfurter meat was of poor quality, but I have never enjoyed filet mignon more.
I forced myself to take smaller bites as I neared the end. When it was gone, I felt a deep and powerful wave of gratitude sweep over me.
I thanked my benefactor, of course. But my gratitude extended far beyond him. And though I don’t remember putting it into words, it was, in its own way, a strong and heartfelt prayer of thanksgiving.
On the second occasion, I know I prayed. It began at a church camp up in the central California mountains. My young son Bill and I had come alone, as my wife Jayne had gone to a Los Angeles hospital for a checkup.
“Don’t worry.” she laughed when I said I was sorry to be going without her. “It will be a chance for me to get a good rest. And,” she added, “if they let me out soon enough, I’ll come up and join you and Bill.”
We hadn’t been at the camp more than three days when my usual evening phone call to Jayne turned my world upside down.
Her voice was strained but brave as she explained that, according to her doctors, she had cancer. She had been told it was a particularly virulent type that did not leave her much time to live.
I don’t remember much else about that night except for going to our pastor, Don Moomaw of the Bel Air Presbyterian Church, and telling him that I had to leave camp immediately for the hospital.
I broke down in tears, and Don comforted and prayed with me. I stopped to see little Bill, who was already in bed. His face was puzzled as he sat up.
“Something important has come up, son,” I said. “I hate to miss these next few days here, but I have to go back to town now and help Mom with something.”
Then I took off down the mountain in our family camper. As I wrestled the big van down the twisting road, I prayed for Jayne. Dark walls of thick pines flew past the headlights as I thought about our 14 years together. With each turn of the road, I felt worse. I couldn’t believe our life together was ending like this.
Dawn grayed the treetops, and by the time I parked the camper in the UCLA hospital lot, it was midday. I rushed up the walk into the big building.
Hurrying down quiet hails, I finally found Jayne’s room. My throat tight, I stepped around the door.
Jayne was sitting up in bed, her face glowing.
“I’m going to be all right, Steve,” she smiled. Dumbfounded, I could hardly talk.
Two young doctors, new to her case, had carefully reexamined her. And between my phone call and arrival she had received the wonderful news. The cancer diagnosis was in error. Jayne was suffering from an intestinal disorder but one that could be successfully treated.
As I held my wife in my arms, sobbing in joy, once again a deep and powerful wave of gratitude swept over me.
I believe that in the days before theology the first prayer offered by primitive man must have been one of gratitude. And all of us today have moments when we experience the same powerful emotion in one way or another.
But just experiencing it isn’t enough. Like love and affection, gratitude may mean nothing to others unless it is expressed. When it is expressed, the effects can be miraculous.
From all the television shows that I’ve produced–whether comedy or the Meeting of Minds series–what I remember best are letters of thanks from people I have never known nor will ever meet. Each letter brought warmth and courage; each strengthened and helped me more than the sender ever knew.
Man’s hunger for a just amount of appreciation is so deep that it is even reflected in the reaction of Jesus after He met the 10 lepers who pleaded for healing.
After He cured their affliction, only one returned to thank Him. And we can all sense the poignancy of the moment when Jesus looked about an empty road and asked: “Were there not ten cleansed? Where are the nine?”
So feeling gratitude, and expressing it, can be a powerful therapy. What you give often comes back to you.
I remember Sister Seraphia who taught me in seventh and eighth grades at St. Thomas the Apostle school in Chicago.
This merry-eyed woman of God improved my self-image by encouraging my early literary ambitions. So years later when I wrote my autobiography, Mark It and Strike It, I dedicated it to her in gratitude for the support she had given me.
Though decades had gone by, her sparkling good humor had not dimmed a bit. In response she wrote: “Your dedication thrilled me so much, Steve, that I forgot to look for all the grammatical errors.”
And that’s another thing I thank God for–that there are so many people with a good sense of humor. Their wit and laughter lighten the load of responsibilities most of us carry. For me, at least, it’s one more thing to be grateful for: the leavening that makes life worthwhile.
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