Generally, I think of myself as a grateful person. If you asked me, are you grateful? I would most likely respond, “How could I not be? I have a devoted, attentive husband of 35 years and four adult children who live close by and still seem to enjoy spending time with us. I live in a comfortable house surrounded by books and more books. Out my door is the beautiful Inland Northwest. I can walk to the river or hike through Ponderosa pines. I have good friends, a meaningful job. Who wouldn’t be grateful?”
I have heard sermons on gratefulness and haven’t felt terribly convicted. Yes, God has been good to me. I know that even the difficult things in my life can be used to shape me. I know that I’ve done nothing to deserve God’s mercy, that I live a privileged life and that the best things in my life have nothing to do with me working hard to get them. Yes, of course. I am grateful.
Then I read these words by Annie Dillard: “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”
Do I live grateful days? Am I intentionally, specifically grateful on a daily basis? Does gratitude characterize my thoughts, my words, my understanding of my everyday life?
Dillard’s quote might be extended further: How we spend our moments is, of course, how we spend our days.
When my kids were little we read a picture book – one of those that you read over and over again so many times that its characters and lines start to become a part of your family culture.
The Old Woman Who Lived in a Vinegar Bottle is an old folk tale about a woman who lived in, you guessed it, a vinegar bottle, and she complained as any of us might who found ourselves in such cramped, exposed and stinky conditions. Unlike you and me, however, the old woman was fortunate enough to have a compassionate neighborhood fairy. The fairy heard the woman complaining and fantasizing about her ideal living quarters. She didn’t want much, just a cozy, whitewashed cottage with pink roses growing around the windows and a front porch with a rocker where she could sit and contemplate life.
Lo and behold, the fairy granted her wish and voila! The old woman was no longer living in a vinegar bottle. She was in a cute country cottage with roses growing around the windows. The old woman was ecstatic…at least at first. She danced around the cottage, smelled the roses and sat contemplatively on her new front porch. As happy as she seemed to be with this totally undeserved gift, she didn’t think to say thank you to the fairy.
A counselor once described gratitude to me as the process of turning a cup right side up. Gratitude allows us to take in the good things in our lives in a way that fills us. Until we are grateful, the good things run down our sides and spill onto the floor, and we remain empty.
The old woman wasn’t grateful, and pretty soon, she wasn’t happy either. She commenced with the complaining all over again: “What a pity. What a pity. What a pity, pity, pity that I should live in a tiny, moldy cottage like this. I deserve to live in an upscale downtown apartment…”
The fairy once again heard her complaints and granted her wishes. In fact, each time, the woman grew dissatisfied, the fairy gave her more and more until the woman ended up as queen of an extensive kingdom with chefs to cook for her and maids to wait on her. Still, she was unhappy, so the fairy decided she might as well go on living in a vinegar bottle.
My kids loved this book. We went to hear a storyteller perform it. They quoted the lines and drew pictures of the old woman’s houses. Honestly, they mostly drew pictures of the vinegar bottle dwelling – usually with multiple levels inside massive bottles. Bottle houses continued showing up in my children’s stories for years.
I’m certainly not trying to minimize suffering. Life is hard. You’ll get no argument from me on that one. Which is exactly why we need to stop and notice when it’s good.
A friend of mine was diagnosed with breast cancer last year and had to have a double mastectomy. She blew me away with her attitude. Unquestionably, she had lots of low moments, days, weeks. She was exhausted and hated pulling out handfuls of hair, feeling unattractive and nauseated and facing countless procedures. But she also told me that she never once asked, Why me? Instead, she thought, why not me? I have a loving husband, a supportive family and excellent insurance. Why not me?
I’ve been trying to mirror some of that attitude in my own life as I struggle with recent digestive issues. The list of things I cannot eat is growing longer on a daily basis: garlic, onion, hummus, bread, pasta, apples, peaches, broccoli, peas, milk… Frankly, when I’m curled up on the couch with my heating pad, I’ve had periods of feeling sorry for myself.
But here’s the thing. There are SO many more things that I can eat than things that I can’t eat: rice, steak, tortillas, raspberries, tomatoes and eggplant, just to name a few of my favorites. Plus, I’m married to a chef, who can do more with a plain potato than most people can do with a list of fancy ingredients. And I live in a time and a country where specialized diets are readily accommodated.
Moment by moment, most of us face a choice between gratitude and complaining. I often make the wrong one, but I’ve noticed that practicing, as in most things, makes a difference here. Toward that end, we’ve created a simple worksheet to get you started. If you feel so inclined, we'd love for you to share your lists with us in the comments section or on our Facebook page. May we all practice gratitude, not just as a passive acknowledgement in our heads, but as a moment-by-moment choice in our thoughts, words and behaviors.