Escape from "If Only!" Island

May 5, 2009 | Uncategorized | 29 comments

Or, On My Staggering Inability to be Grateful

The other night a thunderstorm rolled in just as I was drifting off to sleep. I’d been reading a book about World War II, and in my half-conscious state I thought that the thunder that rolled across the sky was the sound of the exploding bombs of a war approaching my doorstep. For a moment it was vividly real — the rain splattering against the window even providing the sound of machine-gun fire — and I experienced all the terrible emotions I would feel if I really were in that situation.

I finally panicked my way out of the dream and woke to realize that it was just thunder. I was overcome with relief and joy. I felt such a strong sense of gratitude that I was sure that this time it would last, that I would finally be able to go through my days with a sense of appreciation for all that I have. And it did last…for about thirty minutes. Then the baby unexpectedly woke up and I was back to whining.

I have been stuck on what I’ve come to think of as “If Only” Island for as long as I can remember.

I first wrote about it here back in 2007. There are always just a couple of things that supposedly stand between me and perfect contentment: first it was “If only we weren’t having financial problems!”; then it was “If only I weren’t in so much pain from the DVT!”; then it was “If only I didn’t have morning sickness!”; and so on and so on. These days it’s lack of sleep from having a newborn and the chaos of having four kids under five. If only I had a staff of maids and cooks I’d be at peace, filled with the profound sense of gratitude that a healthy person surrounded by all the conveniences of modern America should have. I mean, it sounds plausible, right?

The problem is that it’s not true. Thirty-two years of data indicate that I would just find something else to feel sorry for myself about.

I have spent the past couple of months praying about this. “How can I escape from this awful ‘If Only’ mindset and know the peace that comes with constant gratitude?” I asked. A few weeks ago, I think I got an answer: it starts with what you’re grateful for.

Over the past couple of years I’d tried to address this issue without prayer, just bullheadedly assuming that I knew what I needed to do. I’d read a book that said that you should try to find five things to be thankful for each day, so I started doing it. A typical day’s list would look something like this:

I’m thankful for…

  • My husband and children
  • A comfortable car to get me from place to place
  • A vacuum to clean my carpet
  • An air conditioner to keep me from LOSING MY MIND in this INSANE heat
  • A comfortable bed to sleep in


Even though I did this day in and day out, I still spent a surprising amount of time fixating on what was inconveniencing me and what I didn’t have. Now that I have actually prayed about it I think I’m getting a clue as to where I went wrong.

The problem with this gratitude list is that it was way too focused on worldly comforts. Giving thanks for my family was good; the rest of the list, however, speaks of a mindset that assumes that to seek comfort and to avoid inconvenience is my highest goal for each day. This is not a Christ-seeking mindset.

It’s not that I think that vacuum cleaners or cozy beds are bad or that we shouldn’t give thanks for them. It’s just that people like me need to be very careful about where we prioritize these things on our gratitude lists, lest we fall into the temptation to put too much time and effort into thinking about how comfortable/not comfortable we are in the world — a one-way ticket to “If Only” Island.

Once I introduce that scale of “How Comfortable is Jen Today?”, it’s tempting to go either way on it. It can be an opportunity to appreciate the fact that, for example, I am blessed to have a dishwasher to clean my dishes, unlike so many other people in the world; but, while we’re asking the question, I can’t help but note that it would be REALLY, REALLY nice if my three toddlers were not ALL throwing simultaneous temper tantrums this morning and that THERE ARE ALSO A LOT OF PEOPLE IN THE WORLD WHO ARE MORE BLESSED THAN I AM IN THE ‘NOT LISTENING TO CONSTANT SCREAMING’ DEPARTMENT TODAY. Ahem. You get the idea. Also, if dishwasher breaks, then I’m all the more frustrated about it because it was part of the foundation for my sense of gratitude.

The Holy Spirit has basically hit me over the head with a cluebat to tell me that my gratitude list should contain a lot fewer items having to do with worldly comforts and a lot more items having to do with experiencing God’s love, even when it’s not pleasurable or fun. This is not to say that I’ve implemented this perfectly (and I assure you that as soon as I publish this post God is going to give me major opportunities to put this into practice*). But the halting efforts I have made in this area have allowed me to start saying “If only!” a lot less and “Thank you!” a lot more. I’m slowly but surely starting to understand that the main thing I need to be thankful for each morning is that I’ve been given one more day to know, love and serve God.

* He did.

29 Comments

  1. tinkerbell the bipolar faery

    I see your point, but I think that developing a gratitude attitude is still a wonderful thing. To feel grateful for anything … seem to me, a step in the right direction.

    God lives in many of the ordinary mundane things of our lives.

  2. Shelly W

    Oh, Jen, I need that kind of reminder too. My husband always says to “compare down.” In other words, don’t compare yourself to those who have more than you; rather, we should compare ourselves to those who have so much less (which is really what you’re saying). When we do that, our perspective changes pretty quickly.

  3. Jasmine

    You must first be thankful for Christ on the Cross. All other thankfulness and gratitude comes from that.

    In the same way that you can love your neighbor and enemy because of your great love of God, you can be constantly thankful and grateful if you allow the deep well of gratitude you have for the Lord spill over into the rest of your life.

  4. Allison J.

    What I have found to be a very helpful practice is to deliberately thank God for the things that are frustrating or that make me angry. I don’t always, or even usually, remember to do it, but when I do the act has always been accompanied by graces.

    For example, if unexpected chores or tasks pop up, I will try to remember to say, “Thank You God for helping me learn patience.”

    Or if someone drags on and on in conversation, I try to say, “Thank You God for helping me learn charity.”

    Or if someone forgets to mention my contribution to a project or I don’t get the kind of recognition I want, I try to remember to say, “Thank You God, for teaching me humility like I asked You to.”

    I am very bad at this and God is just starting to teach it to me, but it is so helpful to me to start to think of all the frustrating pieces of my life as lessons from God to draw me to Him.

  5. Anonymous

    Hi Jen, After having a really tough go for the last 10 years coming to a head this year-I am left with just this: God allows everything and works it for the good of my soul. There are days I feel like Job and I find myself saying “the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away, Blessed be the Lord!” In a strange way it strengthens me b/c I must put all my trust in God and believe that he wills my good.

  6. Onefineday

    Oh, so true. I find that what works best for me is to think of the needs of others. That usually puts my whining, wants, needs, etc. into their proper perspective.

  7. Heather

    You’re the third person I’ve heard or read today that had something to say about gratitude. Oh, dear; do you think God might be trying to tell me something, too?

  8. Amy Andrews

    I am so right there with ya.

    For me, I've described it as my "lack of contentment" and it has followed me all the days of my life. It makes me feel like I'm constantly spinning my wheels (not sure if that's your experience). I say things like, "Everything will be good & I'll finally be able to start making an impact in the world or get things done as soon as I…finish high school, finish college, find someone to marry, get engaged, get married, get pregnant, get this baby out of me, get pregnant again, get out of the diaper stage, move into a house, etc. etc. etc. etc." It's endless. I feel like I'm constantly running in circles; I feel like I'm spiritually out of breath.

    Then I recently read Families Where Grace Is In Place by Jeff VanVonderen which is a parenting book (obviously) but very insightful on so many levels. In it he points out how sin has left us internally needy & empty and how we often attempt to "draw a sense of worth, nurturing, and inner life" from external relationships (and I would add, circumstances).

    So, we are "barking up the wrong tree" when we try all the well-intentioned ways to fight the discontentment beast. We'll never experience total contentment until we really get that God totally delights in us and completely fills the internal void. Then the need to look to external circumstances (and relationships) to try to fill the void becomes a non-issue.

    Now if only I could really understand & internalize God's delight in me, I'd be good to go! 🙂

    Whew. Didn't mean to go off there. All that to say, I think I'm trackin' with ya.

  9. David

    I have the same mentality from time to time, when some “hardship” happens such as project due dates, kids/spouse getting sick, etc. Then I would remember a quote I saw from St Francis de Sales on a notecard, and try to look at it as a gift from God, and ask God what he wants me to learn from all this. More often than not, I would also mutter under my breath to God, and say “Let’s get this learning over with, so that I can go on with my life!”

    The notecard was from http://www.catholicstationery.com, and it says:

    The Everlasting God has in His wisdom foreseen from eternity the cross He now presents to you as a gift from His inmost Heart. This cross He now sends you He has considered with His all-knowing eyes, understood with His divine mind, tested with His wise justice, warmed with loving arms and weighed with His own Hands, to see that it be not one inch too large and not one ounce too heavy for you. He has blessed it with His Holy Name, anointed it with His grace, perfumed it with His consolation, taken one last glance at you and your courage, and then sent it to you from heaven, a special greeting from God to you, an alms of the all-merciful love of God.

  10. Em.

    Great post! Thank you for the reminder that comfort is not always the name of the game.

  11. Emily

    Jen, Have you ever heard of or read _The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment_ by Jeremiah Burroughs? I have been wanting to read it for a while because I’ve heard from several people that it is excellent. I can’t tell you how often I get stuck on “If Only!” Island, too! Thanks for your thoughtful post, as always.

  12. scatteringflowers.com

    You must be onto something. I had a laugh at myself today when I realized I was living on “If Only Island.” Then I find that you are writing about it too.

    I just didn’t realize it had such a cool name.

    Thanks for the reminder that I’m not the only one who has a tendency to focus on what I lack instead of thanking God for what he has provided; especially when it comes to those spiritual gifts. What’s a new laptop compared to those?

    Jackie

  13. Joe Strain

    Certainly is simple, sometimes we have the joy of making it more complex than it really needs to be.

    You seem to understand all this, so head for the light and don’t look back.

    De Colores
    Handsome Joe

  14. Ann Voskamp @Holy Experience

    Over the last 3 years, gratitude has radically inverted my life… cracking open the door to let me see real reality.

    It’s all gift.
    Grace.
    God.

    Giving thanks for worldly comforts can be unsettling… but it is the beginning of seeing how God loves us enough to even attend to the details of our lives. He is wooing us to Himself in all these details.

    In giving thanks for the worldly comforts, we begin to feel His love in ways we ve have never before experienced — very tangibly — and we become deeply aware of how unworthy we are for this food, this shelter, these material things… We become painfully aware of our own moral bankruptcy… and that He staggeringly loves me for nothing I can give.

    And it stirs me to love Him for Him, not because of his gifts, but simply for His being, loving Him for nothing.

    Like He has loved me for nothing.

    So I keep giving thanks. And find it to be daily communion.

    Much love to you, radiant friend…

    All’s grace,
    Ann

  15. Denise

    Thanks for sharing the “cluebat”. I agree, gratefulness for all things is needed. It is easy to be thankful for the obvious. The challenge comes to be thankful for the things we can’t yet grasp fully – the things we don’t want to grasp at all – the things we have to walk away from.

    Shalom,
    Denise

  16. MichelleF

    I thought you might be interested in this site – http://www.penitents.org.

    God Bless

  17. sue

    Thank you Jen, and also David! This topic is one I am mulling too, and I am grateful for your writings about it. And, David, I am putting your quote on my desk right now.

  18. amy

    As a non-believer (and someone who wavers even in my desire to be a believer), I go back and forth on the gratitude issue. First of all, the type of gratitude list you aspire to is unavailable to me, as I really don’t feel I have a “relationship” with God. So I do the other kind, the kind where I am thankful for the little things and big things in my life, the material things, and tangible (to me) things, like my relationships with people in my life, the kindness of strangers, the beauty of a sunset and my ability to see it, etc.

    Second of all, I frequently wonder to “whom” my gratitude is directed. I don’t see God from the Christian perspective. Still, even though I’m not sure exactly where to direct my gratitude, I do appreciate the good in my life, and so I make gratitude lists as an expression of that.

    Third, I agree with tinkerbell, that gratitude benefits us whether we are “doing it right” or not. If I lost the things I was grateful for today, I would seek other things to be grateful for. I think it’s an attitude of looking for good in life, a habit, and I think it leads me to be more compassionate toward those lacking even the basics of clean water, adequate shelter, and decent health care.

  19. amy

    I wanted to add that I don’t see gratitude as focusing on an “if only” situation; I see it as the opposite–working to be content with exactly where I am right now.

  20. Anonymous

    I simply try to imagine a thank you department in Heaven and send my thanks there. Sometimes in the middle of something I’ll see something pleasing (a bird or such) and I’ll just say “Thank You God for allowing me to experience that”
    It breaks my thinking and physically makes me pause. A chance to change my direction and thoughts.
    I’ve heard of writing down 5 things but never tried it.

  21. Libby

    Yes, cluebat for me, as well – just a little confirmation that this is something the Lord really wants me to realign, probably first in the form of ceasing to congratulate myself for all the gratitude I show Him.

  22. Joanne

    Jen, thank you for another great post. Gratitude is something I’ve been thinking about lately. A couple of years ago my family went though a very difficult period (lost everything in Katrina, homeless for 6 months while unexpectedly pregnant, unemployed etc.) As we started to get back on our feet, my husband encouraged me to “look on the bright side” and try to be grateful for the things we still had, the things that could have been so much worse.

    I thought that something was wrong with me because I just. couldn’t. do. it. (be grateful)

    Now that some time has passed I can see that as my husband was in the “healing” phase from what we had been through, I was still in the “shock/depression” phase. I had to grieve first before I could move on to gratitude. The pregnancy/postpartum (PPD) and other aftermath from Katrina was much more difficult on me than it was on my husband for a variety of reasons out of our control.

    I realize that your post is more about how we deal with the daily hassles of life, not so much about the total upheval or major life crisis that my family had after Katrina. Gratitude can be complex 🙂

  23. Laura

    Gratitude has been a big topic with me, too, lately. I have been trying to remember to thank God for the trials in my life, too. Hard to do without sounding sarcastic! I even thank him for certain people in my life, because without the gift of them, I wouldn’t know persecution!

    I thank God for your inspired writings.

    God Bless.

  24. Elizabeth

    Great post. I totally relate to the attitude to screaming toddlers!

  25. Jen

    Wow, Jen. I found this post (& the preceding one) very powerful – almost too much, in fact. It is so challenging at such a deep level. There is hope in it for sure, but so much responsibility, too. I pray I am strong enough to take the next step.

  26. Lisa Stone

    Jennifer, you articulated so well what has been bothering me about ME. Particularly leading up to Mother’s Day. What a terrific piece of writing — in fact, Elisa and I agreed that you should be BlogHer of the Week. Wonderful work!

  27. Jennifer @ Conversion Diary

    Thank you for all your great comments!

    And thanks so much Lisa, I’m honored!

  28. Anonymous

    When you find yourself complaining or if only’ing, stop immediately and repent. Acknowledge your sin and ask God to help you.

    Secondly, focus your mind on God’s attributes like His mercy, goodness, sovereignty, justice, and holiness.

    Never compare down. God is the ruler of the universe. God knew you in the womb. Simply be grateful for what you have and others have.

    If you are truly lacking something, pray and ask God to show you any sin and ask him to show you what you can do to improve your situation.

    Praise God that you are saved. A few years ago this blog would have never happened…

  29. JCK

    Jennifer, congrats on being BlogHer of the week!

    I feel like you really tapped into something that resonates with me, often. I struggle with the If Only. Oh…yes, I do. Thanks for your honesty and insight.

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