The Hard Work of Giving Thanks

There's a handmade banner that says "PARTY" hanging across our dining room window.  It's left over from a birthday party we held almost a month ago, and somehow it has just become part of the landscape.  It's not that I don't see it.  I just don't recognize it as something particularly disruptive, something that needs to be fixed or cleaned or removed right away.

It's amazing how quickly we become acclimated to things.  The newness wears off, our vision adjusts, and it becomes just part of the landscape.  A new couch, a new car, a new shirt.  All fresh and shiny at first, then someone gets crumbs all over it, and it becomes just another thing to clean or fix or put away.

I haven't written a word all week.  I didn't want to talk about gratitude anymore, didn't want to think about it or write about it or record the things I'm grateful for on any dang list.

One of the things I'm learning about gratitude is that in order to be grateful for things, we have to be keenly aware of them.  We have to see them with an honesty and intensity that requires more effort than the lazy, passive way we have of looking at things in our autopilot mode.  It's work, noticing the details of your life in a way that allows you to be deliberately grateful for them.

Most days, it's easier to keep the blinders on.

Today we had lunch early because we were hungry and because it's the weekend and we weren't beholden to any kind of schedule.  Sam was working, so the boys and I sat down to eat, and as we ate Nico related a lesson from school on Friday.  "Mom, did you know if there were only 100 people in the world, only 33 of them would be Christian?  And only 5 of them would speak English?"

Though I'd heard some of this before, I let him tell me, nodding solemnly at each proclamation.  "Only like twenty would own a computer, and a bunch of them couldn't even read.  I don't remember how many.  And I think 15 of them would be starving.  And do you know what a starving person looks like?  You can see their ribs and their stomachs look like this."

He pulled up his shirt and sucked in his stomach, creating a cavernous hollow in the skin of his abdomen.  Then he released his breath, and the smooth, rounded belly of a healthy seven year old popped back into place.  He sat down and picked up his sandwich, pieces of meat falling unnoticed out of the side, uneaten food I knew would sit there on his plate until I tackled the dishes later and fed it to the disposal.

When food is not scarce, when you always know where your next meal will come from, it's hard to feel grateful for every morsel.  To do so, we would have to remember at every meal, with every bite, those who are starving.  We would have to live in the terrible dichotomy of having in a world full of people who, buy and large, have not.

But what a ridiculous predicament, to have so much I can't feel grateful for it all because I don't know what it's like to do without.  I have never know starvation.  I have never slept out in the cold, on the street.  I've never been unable to give my children shoes or jackets or even books and toys.

Tonight the news headline said, "Israel Bombards Gaza Strip, Shoots Down Rocket," and when I clicked on the link to read the story, the sidebar advertised another story, 'Twilight Movie Theater Shooting Plot Averted."  I didn't have time to finish reading the article because Lincoln called, "Maw, I need a snack," and I had to run off to keep him from rifling through the pantry.

Violence rages far and near.  On the Gaza strip, mothers hold their babies in quaking fear, feeling uncertainty rattle the foundation of their homes and their sanity.  Somewhere in Missouri, people file into a theater never knowing a man had been planning to pepper those very aisles with bullets.  Hunger stretches out far and wide, and all around us here, too.  And yet, I can find the selfishness to say I'm tired of working so hard to feel grateful for the much I have been given. 

The other truth I am learning about gratitude is that being truly thankful for something is admitting to yourself that it won't always be there.  It is facing uncertainty head on, saying thank you for these fleeting moments in which I get to enjoy this sunset or this newborn or this feast.  It is saying I know this can be taken from me at any momentI know this won't last.  So, thank you for however much of it I will get to enjoy before it disappears. 

And in that sense, yes, I will have to remember those who are hungry with every bite I take.  I will have to remember, as I tuck my boys into bed, how easily tragedy can strike.  I will have to live in the dichotomy of having and losing, in the uncertainty of never knowing when something or someone will be taken from me.  And, ultimately, I will have to remember that a life of gratitude means not getting mired in the fear of what will come but getting lost in the joy of what is, right here and now.  A life of gratitude means knowing it will all be gone, and me with it sooner or later, but for now, for this moment, I will see what I have been given and I will lift a mighty cheer of praise.

{This month, I am writing on the topic of gratitude, keeping a gratitude journal, and generally wrestling with that insidious tendency to think there is always something missing. I hope you will join me in this month of giving thanks.}


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