I have been struggling with the issue of gratitude lately. How can we be grateful, or why should we, in times when circumstances seem so harsh? I am not talking about easy situations. If someone gives me money it is easy to be grateful. I talked with a co-worker who had been on a trip to Europe and had her wallet stolen on the subway. A bystander who saw it all happen walked up to her and gave her a hundred dollars so she could get to her hotel. In that situation it would be easy to be grateful. I am talking about the hard times, not just times when our blessings are obvious. I experience moments of gratefulness; what I'm after is a life of gratefulness. What I want for myself is a sustained posture of gratitude for the blessings I have been given. I don't expect to be some weird, unfazed, smiling robot without feelings; there are certainly times when my life seems hard and overwhelming. Taking the whole of my life into account, though, I am grateful for the person God has made me, and grateful for the people He has brought into my life. Once I have this general attitude, I find I have to deal with another important question: how do I pass it on to my children and others in my life? What parent hasn't tried to tell their children about the hardships they faced when they were a child? We all walked to school uphill both ways. These days, we've probably made a few changes to that clichéd line: we remind our kids that that we didn't have twenty-four hour TV or Internet. We didn't have video games, (well, other than maybe the local arcade's copy of Pac-Man.) We had to go outside! In the end, of course, all the speeches and stern talking-to's don't make as much of an impact as the example of a life lived.
My family and I have been to places where poverty makes it clear how blessed we are. We have seen how little others have in comparison; we have worked building houses for the poor in Mexico and helped with orphans in Guatemala, and it has made us grateful for our blessings. In my own life, this sense of gratitude has always lasted for a season. Sustaining it is what I really want.
As I think about this it brings to mind several stories I have heard recently. A news story about a family who had a child born with many issues stuck with me. They had been in and out of hospitals most of the time since the baby had been born. As the story unfolded it turned from the hardship of his youth to the triumph of his adulthood. While any number of things had happened along the way that many would consider setbacks, this young man saw those moments as challenges to overcome. Every time someone said he would never do something, he took it as a personal challenge. The best line from this story came from the young man's father. He explained that this was not the life he would have planned for himself, but looking back he wouldn't change it. A second story had a similar impact on me; I posted a link to that video on our Facebook page. A family tells the story of their son's life, the life of a young man born without arms. This young man is matter of fact about his life and his determination. He confidently asserts that there's nothing he can't do in life. There are just things he hasn't done yet.
What struck me in both stories was not how inspirational they were. What was striking was that neither of these young men made any comments about how life should have been. Neither of them dwells on what is not, or on how they would have done things differently, but on who they are and how they have used their situations as motivators to accomplish their dreams.
Too many times I look at the way life could have been. I wonder how my story could have been different if one aspect changed. Others, successful and inspirational, are concentrating on what is and how to reach the goals before them. I cannot change what has been; spending time thinking on it will make no difference. Accepting past struggles I cannot change just makes sense. Putting my energy into the future is more productive. Once I let go of what didn't happen, I am free to be grateful for the opportunities in front of me.