As regular readers know, I am a gratitude ignoramus. This concept that flows so easily through the lives of others never fails to leave me confounded; I stand around scratching my head and analyzing what it means to count your blessings, while other people are actually counting their blessings.
Ann Voskamp (whose blog I’m pretty sure the Bible specifically commands us to read) was the first person to get me thinking about this concept. I would read through her 1, 000 Gifts posts and feel the Holy Spirit pouring through my computer screen, beckoning me to adopt the same outlook in my own life. One time I was wiping tears out of my eyes after reading her poetic words of gratitude for all the good things in her life, and I resolved that I would do the same — starting now. I had to go to the grocery store, which seemed like the perfect place to start naming the good things that surround me.
Alas, it only took about three minutes for the whole thing to go off the rails. I arrived at the grocery store entrance, and paused in front of the door to think:
Lord, I am thankful for these automatic sliding doors, which make it so easy to enter this place of abundance! So, I guess you could say I am thankful for the machine that actually slides the door open. And that little laser eye thing that senses movement, which I think is a separate mechanism. So, really, I am thankful for all the engineers of the world, who create such devices. And the manufacturing facilities. Which is not to say that I’m not also grateful to the people who make the glass that not only forms the door but allows us to see into the store! And the people who designed the metal frame that holds it, the miners who mined the materials…
You think I’m kidding.
The people behind me didn’t seem to be feeling particularly thankful as I blocked the entrance with my gratitude paralysis, so I moved inside the store, assuring God that I was thankful for the sign on the door displaying the hours and the paint used to make it, even though I had not specifically mentioned them. Seeing as how I didn’t have a week to complete this store trip, I decided to stop analyzing my physical surroundings and just make a list of things that I had felt particularly grateful for lately. The first few items were:
- Liquor store gift cards
- Earl Campbell sausage
- Techno remixes of rap songs
I was about to add bacon and boxed wine to the list, until it occurred to me that that would leave me with a gratitude list in which 80% of the items were related to alcohol or pork products. Clearly, this exercise was not going to yield the results I had hoped for. So I gave up once again, resigning myself to the occasional thought of, “Hey, thanks!” thrown out in God’s general direction.
Meanwhile, I’ve been having this issue with debilitating stabbing pains in my lower abdomen. The good news is that an emergency room trip that included CAT scans, bloodwork and physical exams showed that I’m the very picture of good health. The bad news is that, umm, I keep having these random, debilitating stabbing pains in my lower abdomen. (As if I’m not socially awkward enough, now I occasionally lean over in agony during polite conversation, grunting out, “It’s cool…The doctor says…I’m…fine…!”) I’m going to continue to seek answers from medical professionals and Dr. Google, but, at least for the short term, I’m stuck with it.
Earlier this week I was at the store Kohl’s with one of my daughters. We were having a great time, trying on clothes, even finding some great sales…and then it hit me. We were walking by the purses section when the familiar red-hot stabbing pain started up again. I’d been worried about this happening in public, and now my fear had come true. This was a particularly bad episode, and it caused me to drop to my knees. To keep from attracting attention to myself, I pretended to take a closer look at the purses on the bottom shelf. It was infuriating. I was trying to do something utterly simple like do a little shopping, and now it had been derailed by this stupid issue over which I evidently have no control.
My daughter knelt down next to me and whispered, “Are you okay?”
I said I was. And when I looked over at her, I thought, Well, at least she’s here with me.
And for whatever reason, that simple thought changed everything. It triggered a cascade of grace, and suddenly, my entire perspective shifted.
…This song they’re playing as background music is actually one of my favorites, was the next thought. And then: How perfect that I happened to be by the purses, so I’d have a good excuse for being on the floor. What a blessing that my mom was able to keep the baby; that it’s me in discomfort instead of my daughter; and that these pains usually don’t last for more than 30 seconds anyway.
Another surge of pain hit, and I made a grunting noise as I dropped the purse I’d been holding. I couldn’t help but smile as it occurred to me that it looked to people passing by like I was having an angrily primal reaction to handbags without exterior pockets. This prompted another round of thoughts of thanksgiving: Thank God for little girls who love to shop with their mommies. For the ER technology that ruled out worries of serious issues. For purses, which help me in my vocation. For living in a land of such abundance that stores like Kohl’s exist. For the fact that I’m even alive to feel this pain at all! I started laughing in between winces, which prompted my daughter to giggle right alongside me.
In my normal mode of thinking, I would not have been able to see past the pain. I would have had a laser focus on my desire to shop without having to deal with this, and would have channeled all my thoughts to that end. But being forced into a moment of surrender prompted me to stop asking “What do I want?”, and looking into my four-year-old daughter’s eyes prompted me to ask instead, “What do I have?” In my previous attempts at gratitude, I wasn’t wrong for being thankful for Earl Campbell sausage and automatic doors at the grocery store — but that was more a generic list of good elements of the created world, rather than a joyful examination of the blessings God puts in my path to draw me closer to himself right here, right now.
There on the floor at Kohl’s, giggling behind a stand of purses with my daughter, I learned that gratitude is an acknowledgment of a relationship more than it is a dry list of goods. It’s a thank-you note for the stepping stones that God places in our paths to show us the way to heaven; a willful act of seeing the hand of God at work in our lives, even when our circumstances aren’t ideal.
(And, while we’re talking about Ann Voskamp, grab a box of Kleenex and go read about what she’s doing in Ecuador, and prayerfully consider if you feel led to help her in this mission.)