Van Ens: Show gratitude at your fingertips |

Van Ens: Show gratitude at your fingertips

Browsing a folder in which some first-grade elementary school report cards were stored, I noticed receiving an “A” for an activity seldom offered today: penmanship. Teachers instilled pride in students whose fingertips held ink pens. For hours students practiced cursive writing by penning appreciative notes to friends and family. 

Students’ ink-stained fingertips served as academic badges of honor. They enrolled in penmanship classes, which required a fountain pen and an ink well. Young scholars frequently spilled ink trying to fill their pens. Students’ trial and error at penmanship resulted in stained fingertips, dark cuticles and discolored desks. 

Why not revive the skill of penmanship this Thanksgiving Day by writing notes tucked in envelopes that are posted to people we admire? 

“Feeling gratitude, and not expressing it, is like wrapping a present and not giving it,” observed William Arthur Ward. Saying you are celebrating Thanksgiving Day without note-writing has a similar disconnect. 

That’s because coming around a table teeming with turkey and trimmings tops our memories of past Thanksgivings as well as rivets our attention to relatives today encircling the table. Past and present Turkey Days converge. Writing notes of gratitude salute this double focus. 

“Thanksgiving is the mother of all family dinners, and it comes with a lot of freight,” writes Anne Fisher, a Harvard Medical School psychologist who wrote “Eat, Laugh, Talk: The Family Dinner Playbook.”

She notes, “The holiday gives you a kind of double-vision, where you have your Thanksgiving dinner right now, but you also see through the lens of all your childhood dinners. It makes us very aware that we’re part of something much bigger than ourselves.” Such times beg to be expressed and commemorated in hand-written notes. 

Because penmanship skills and cursive handwriting has gone the way of the dinosaur, we send and receive fewer holiday greetings in longhand. Do you feel abandoned by friends who for decades exchanged cards with you, with envelopes addressed in their familiar handwriting? 

It’s easier for them to text, tweet or dash off an email to express friendly greetings. Still, reaching out with hand-written notes creates personal connections that electronic media lack. 

Stamp collectors are part of this trend that avoids handwritten notes. Some devout philatelists who treat stamps as sacred relics, mounting them in gold-embossed lettered albums, rarely affix stamps on letters. Instead, they opt for electronic communication. They are unlike the Christian apostle who expressed convictions to residents of Corinth, “I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand” (I Corinthians 16:21). 

Government-issued postage stamps first appeared on letters in July 1847. Therefore, Thomas Jefferson did not affix adhesives to his missives, having died on July 4, 1826. But as the third president, he did perfect the art of handwriting. Fingertips holding a quill, Jefferson wrote over 20,000 letters that have survived. 

“The making of policy throughout Jefferson’s presidency was essentially an editorial process,” reports colonial historian Joseph J. Ellis. “This approach played to his acknowledged brilliance as a prose stylist, yet also sidestepped his notorious weakness as an orator and his inveterate shyness in public forums. As far as we can tell, Jefferson made only two public speeches during his eight years in office — his first and second inaugural addresses.”

A few months ago, I worshipped in a Protestant church where a preacher invited young children to join her on the sanctuary’s front steps. This preacher asked the kids how Jesus’ grateful spirit prompted them to share their skills with family and friends. 

“I teach kids younger than me how to write thank-you notes to people who need a lift!” exclaimed a mature fifth-grade girl.   

An admirable gift! Spread contagious goodwill at your fingertips. Handwritten notes create personal connections that raise recipients’ gratitude.

The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth Ministries (, which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.

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