A Portage County way to think about gratitude

Photo of three men helping load grocerties in a parking lot
Managing supervisor Pat Blair (left) helps volunteers Jerry Taylor (center) and Joel Barrett load boxes of food for Kathy Englehart at the Brimfield Community Cupboard. Michael Indriolo/The Portager

When people talk about “being thankful,” they’re always talking about something you should do individually. Send thank-you cards. Make a list of things you’re grateful for. Each Thanksgiving, studies reappear to remind us thankfulness has health benefits.

Anyone who has given a sincere thank you or received one knows the truth of those research findings. If altruism is the evolved behavior of a social species, then gratitude is its currency, encouraging participation with dopamine rewards.

The same effect can happen at scale. For example, Catholics say grace before communion, and the congregation benefits collectively. Even an atheist can acknowledge the detoxifying power of a church service.

So I have to assume acts of collective gratitude can pay off among 162,000 residents of a mid-sized Ohio county. Right?

Follow me, let’s try. 

Let’s think about what we’ve all just been through.

Do you remember March of 2020? I do. I was washing my groceries with soap and leaving bags to sit for days. I was sitting 20 feet from my parents on a cold back deck hoping we’d all be OK. Just trying to increase our odds.

We read stories that made us despair. I couldn’t even look at Facebook sometimes because one more deathbed post or tragic news story was either going to make me sob or go numb. I didn’t want either.

We heard every kind of tragedy. And they struck all around us. UH Portage even had to rearrange its morgue. Nurses worked wartime hours, burying patient after patient. And the patients died alone. One relative, denied entry, shattered the glass of the hospital entrance.

But while all this was going on, while everything seemed bad, you had to acknowledge that certain things were good.

For one, we had groceries to wash. And for the many of us who didn’t, there was an army of volunteers breaking their backs to deliver food safely to your door or trunk.

We can name some of them:

Thank you, Family and Community Services. Thank you, United Way. Thank you, Portage County faith communities. Thank you, Kent Social Services. Thank you, food pantries of Garrettsville, Randolph-Suffield-Atwater, Rural Relief, Campus Kitchen, Brimfield Cupboard, Salvation Army and others.

People built solidarity boxes. People donated hundreds of dollars. A woman on Sandy Lake Road put a table at the end of her driveway and piled it with food. Leave more or take what you need.

And the stories. Some broke our hearts. But others mended them. It was all there for us. We absorbed them alone and processed them together. I hate to say it, but Facebook was a lifeline. For all the flaws of Big Tech, the fundamental technology held us together in ways that were not possible in pandemics of the past.

We also had The Portager, the Record-Courier, the Weekly Villager and Kent State student media, informing the community about how to get help and how to give it. Thank you, readers, subscribers and advertisers who value the service of information. Thank you, reporters who collected and provided it.

Everyone did something to help someone else. Every one of us did.

Someone rearranged the morgue. 

Someone swept up the shattered glass.

The nurses saved as many people as they could and stayed with the ones they couldn’t for as long as they were able. Someone held the traumatized nurses, cried with them and made them food. The Socially Responsible Sweatshop of Kent sewed their masks. 

All these people were Portagers.

No one asked how they voted. The great clash of values that has in real ways imperiled the union? It’s actually surface rust. I’m sure of it. In Portage County at least, there’s mettle underneath. 

In the face of hunger, oblivion or a dead car battery, a Portager will help you. Every single Portager will stop for you. And they will have jumper cables.

And then… like spring, color returned to the world. Live music. In-person meetings. Grand openings. The Randolph Fair!

Today, you are here. You may not be as whole as you were, but you are here. With us. Hundreds of Portagers are reading this column with you today. So in a way, as much as possible, we’re together.

Take a minute and think about everything we did for each other in the last year and a half. Try being thankful not only personally but as a member of this group of people who share something in common, more than a hospital and a board of county commissioners. 

We’re driving the same roads and breathing the same air. Whatever happens, we’re sharing space, and that truly means something considering we’re genetically bound by millennia of evolutionary pressures tending toward altruistic cooperation. 

What I’m trying to say is: Thank you for being here for me. I’m here for you, too.

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Ben Wolford is the editor and publisher of The Portager.

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