Building Life. Walls and Bridges.
Reflections as we enter a new year.
January 3, 2016
Reflections on Gratefulness
September 30, 2015
There are so many topics that I could expound upon for a blog post. Without question, every one of those topics is worthy of discussion and debate. As I sit here, the news is ablaze with stories concerning human rights. Here in the United States, members of our Congress have waged war on women’s health. This morning the news broke that Pope Francis met with a Kentucky clerk who has made it her mission to deny same-gender couples their legal marriage rights. Taking the time to look beyond our borders we find evidence of the marginalization and oppression of people on epic scales. None of this is new. Since humankind has existed, it has continually found ways to embattle its existence. It’s an interesting reality that philosophers and psychologists, artists and theologians have wrestled with for all time. Last night I was flying home from California and I found myself pondering what the world would be like if each of us learned to live gratefully. Would these realities change? Would we feel the need to mitigate the worth of others to elevate ourselves? Would we be able to live empowered lives that centered on compassion rather than authority? Would we create a more compassionate world that enabled us to live gentler lives? I believe that gratefulness lies at the center of creating that kind of world.
In many ways, our experiences in life act as a chisel. We are the stone at its hand. Throughout life, we are carved, shaped, and etched by every encounter we have and every adventure we take. Understanding that, we also must accept that each of us acts as a chisel in the lives of others. Every word we speak, every decision we make, interaction we engage in, word we write, every breath we take in some way carves, etches, and shapes the experiences of others. Living gratefully impacts the marks that we make on everyone and everything that we touch. Living gratefully does not mean that we are not allowed to desire more, to stretch and to strive. It simply means that we recognize where we have traveled and appreciate where we live now, no matter how difficult or how wonderful we believe our lives to be. It sounds simple. It is not. Every person faces adversity. Every individual has experienced pain. And, adversity and pain are relative to our experiences. A person born in great wealth cannot truly relate to a person born in great poverty. They can have empathy, but they can never fully understand that experience. That does not mean that the pain a wealthy person experiences is less than that of a person living in poverty. We are all human. Living a grateful life also requires that we understand that. We are all human, all wandering through life wondering where it all leads. I have met many people with little to show monetarily who are far richer in spirit than some I know who possess enormous monetary wealth. One of the defining elements in that spiritual prosperity is a sense of gratefulness.
When I was in my ministry studies I wrote a sermon for young people that contrasted the lives of Whitney Houston and John Dau who is one of the Sudanese Lost Boys. One seemingly had the world at her feet. The other walked hundreds of miles with other children from Sudan to Kenya after a violent attack on his tribe during the Second Sudanese Civil War. Whitney Houston had talent, fame, money, adoring fans, awards; by our standards she should have been not only content but fulfilled. John Dau buried his friends. He faced starvation, disease, violence, even the threat of wild animal attacks. The 2006 film God Grew Tired of Us, featured part of his story. At times, Dau admits he felt exactly that way—God had grown tired of them. How else does a boy explain those circumstances? But, in the end Dau not only survives, he comes to thrive in his life. He values those around him. He appreciates the kindness of others, the smallest of opportunities he is given, a drop of water that quenches his thirst. He lives a grateful life. This is not an indictment of Whitney Houston. It is an example of how we lose our way. It would be impossible for either of these people to fathom the circumstances of the other in earnest. The point is that each of us can learn to lead a grateful life. It also illustrates the reality that our lives are relative to our experiences and we have a choice in how we respond to that chisel that carves our path.
I spent the last week in California attending a conference for writers and readers and seeing friends. Over and over again, I found myself lost in my thoughts, shedding a silent tear when I had a moment alone, musing over the path that led me to where I am now. Last night, as I sat on the plane and looked out the window at the millions of lights below, I began to cry. Each of those lights somehow connects to a person. Perhaps it denotes their home, the road they are traveling, the place they work, each one is a life. How fitting that we see it in the form of light. As I sat there imagining what their stories might be, I began to feel extremely small, not unimportant—small. I am just a flicker amid millions of lights. There is something else that struck me as I gazed out that window at 35000 feet—each of those lights connects to the others. No one and nothing is truly solitary. That fills me with an indescribable sense of gratefulness. It is not diminishing to see yourself as only a flicker, it is overwhelmingly humbling. To see the connectedness between each of those tiny dots fills me with a sense of wonder and hope that no words could ever adequately describe.
I am blessed. I am fortunate. Some might think that my feeling of gratefulness comes from this new pathway in my life. I am grateful to be able to make a living doing something I love. There was a time when I would never have believed that I would travel the places I have these last two years, meet the people I have met, see the things I have seen. I could not have imagined how that chisel would turn to carve and etch subtle lines of laughter at the corner of my eyes or the tracks that fresh tears would leave stained on my cheek. But, the truth is that I was wealthy long before I wrote any books or hopped on any airplanes. I was surrounded by friendship and immersed in love.
Life has always been a gift. It was a gift bestowed upon me that I never even asked for. I was given the capacity to feel. I was given the opportunity to LIVE, not just to survive and exist. I entered the world as a solitary light and as my life wanders on that flicker is brightened by all the others that shine beside it. You see, all these terrible things we read about are truly eclipsed when you take the time to look below from above or to look above from below. Stardust. We are all stardust. There is far more light than there will ever be darkness. Perhaps in that realization we can find our gratefulness. There are no ceilings in nature. We build them in our homes and in our hearts. We see them as protection. If you look at the forest, it too builds ceilings of protection. Tree branches meet to provide shade, even to provide fruit. Those trees give us the very air we breathe, but they understand the need for the light. That is why they grow tall. That is why they shed their leaves. Always reaching, always seeking the light—trees allow that which no longer serves them to fall away—no solid ceilings. Nature teaches us gratefulness if we allow it to. It teaches us how to live gentler lives even amid inevitable storms. There are lessons everywhere if only we are willing to listen and look.
When I arrived home last night the rain was pounding. As we waited for our luggage, I listened to my fellow passengers complaining and groaning over wet suitcases. We boarded the small van to retrieve our car and I shook my head as the people beside me chastised our driver. I wonder if any of them looked out of their windows and saw those lights. I wonder what they saw if they did. That baggage handler, our driver, our pilot—they are lights too. Each one matters. Each one is just a part of the other.
Life itself is a gift. Every day is another opportunity. Every moment is another chance. If you ask me what I am most grateful for, the answer is simple—the chance to LIVE. I am grateful for my life. Even the broken-hearted moments remind me that I loved. The betrayals are evidence that I was able to be vulnerable. I did not simply survive. I am alive. I have the ability to love. I have been granted the graciousness of forgiveness by others. I have been loved. I have fallen and I have soared. And, I am grateful. Now, it is time to live my life fully steeped in that gratefulness. My success is not defined by how many books I sell. My happiness is not determined by a number in my bank account. I cannot be made whole by an award nor by any review or professional opportunity. My life is an exercise in gratefulness. Hopefully, as I move to practice that manner of living actively, I will live more compassionately. I will speak more gently and love more fully. I don’t need to be the brightest light seen from above. Like all of us, I shine more brightly when I allow the lights beside me to shine as well. Many lights are far more beautiful than one….and I am hopeful….GRATEFUL simply to be given that ability to flicker beside the others.