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.
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