Confession time: I can be a little competitive and not always about the obvious things. Sitting on my friend’s living room floor, I stared down at my latest challenge, the blank strip of paper in front of me. My LifeGroup leader was handing one to each person in the room.
“I tried this a few months ago, and I was surprised by how well it worked,” the leader said as he handed out the last two-inch strip of paper. “Before we start our discussion tonight, I want you to write down what you are grateful for—whatever comes to mind. Start with two or three things and go from there.”
He thumped down in the middle of the couch and looked around at us with a smirk. Around the room, heads dipped in concentration as people found their inspiration for gratitude.
No problem. I am grateful for…three things. My eyes narrowed at the smug superiority of the challenge. I picked up my pen, held it to the paper, and summoned up a feeling of gratitude.
I tried again. Still nothing. The paper was stubbornly blank, and my mind was cluttered. I shifted through facts and opinions, random thoughts, turning out my mental filing cabinets for something praiseworthy. Still zip. The paper sneered at me, blank and somehow very arrogant.
I can do this. I will not be beaten by a paper or by a simple LifeGroup challenge. Game face, Kevin.
My wife hunched over her paper next to me, lost in her writing. She already had five things written in her precise, flowing handwriting.
Time to catch up, don’t let her think you’re not grateful for anything, she won’t let you live that down. Inspired under pressure, I scrawled out the first item on my gratitude list: my wife’s name.
Page no longer blank; the next couple of words came more easily. The names of my two daughters completed my top three. Challenge accepted and completed! There’s no question, of course, I was grateful for my family. Especially our infant daughter, adorable and full of life even at 2:00 a.m. every night. I rolled my right shoulder back, sore from sleepless midnight feedings. Suddenly wondering why I had chosen to sit on the floor, I tried to find a comfortable position.
Behind me was an open shelf, nowhere to lean. Looking around for a pillow, I glimpsed my wife’s list, now well down her page, was a baker’s dozen of gratitude. I pressed my will into the pen and wrote. I get a break when the girls visit my in-laws across town—I’m grateful for them. They went on the list. I recently purchased a used SUV to replace my broken-down car; it made the list.
Momentum kicked in, and more things sprang to mind. Our new bed, larger than our old noisy box spring. Both the SUV and the new bed came from good friends in our LifeGroup who were selling things before their big overseas move. I ignored the pit that threatened to open in my gut, and wrote their names on my list.
We had a great apartment with working air conditioning and Netflix, three more things on the list. We could afford those things because I had multiple jobs and flexibility, so each of those jobs made the list. A friend had recruited me to be part of his startup company, which was very exciting, if not paid yet. It went on the list.
Three jobs, sure would be nice to have one good one, a tiny thought squirmed in my head when I paused to continue my list. Maybe something making use of your degree, paying enough to get out from under those credit card bills. Somewhere they’ll appreciate you more. I clenched my jaw and kept writing: my mom, my dad, my sister.
A job where you won’t need help from your parents to pay those medical bills, the small thought taunted. I dug my pen into the paper as if I could etch gratitude onto my soul.
“Allen Public Library, family pizza nights, fresh cherries, peach tea, nachos,” the list continued. In a burst of delayed inspiration, I printed “COFFEE” next. I flipped my pen over and tapped the paper, like a referee counting out a defeated wrestler.
The ungrateful worm of a thought vanished from my mind. I had nearly filled the page! My lips perked up at the corners as I re-read my list. I loved my beautiful little family and the life we were building together. A life full of simple joys, like air conditioning, Netflix, pizza, and nachos.
Air conditioning and pizza? You must be so comfortable, so perfect. My spine stiffened at the familiar sneer in my head. I could almost hear the mocking laughter when my friends heard my gratitude list: #FirstWorldProblems #Blessed.
I tried to lean back, forgetting that I was in front of the empty shelf. With an awkward spasm, I managed to avoid collapsing into the gap. Imaginary laughter still ringing in my head, I summoned the energy to try to laugh off any real ridicule. Nobody had noticed my moment, lost in the harmonious white-noise of their own pens scratching off gratitude. Remembering to stay up straight, I closed my eyes and took a deep breath.
What is wrong with me, God? Why is everyone else so grateful, and I can’t escape my bitterness and disappointment? Am I not good enough?
I held my breath until I could feel the tingling burn at the edge of my lungs. Old air out, slow. Fresh breath. The churning, unvoiced thoughts settled a bit in my head, but no gratitude flowed into me with the air. I refused to look at my list again but couldn’t come up with another way to win at gratitude. I sat stiff and still, like a toad waiting for the sun to emerge from behind a cloud.
In the stillness, I remembered a face. The face of my friend Jonathan, who moved away more than a year ago. Jonathan had been there when I met Camille, seen us through our wedding, been there for us, and relied on us in his own life, too. When he moved, we promised to keep in touch, but it’s never the same.
I breathed out unevenly. Jonathan was a man of courage, full of laughter, who inspired everyone around him. I breathed in. I didn’t have Jonathan around all the time, but he wasn’t gone completely.
I frowned and flipped my paper over on an instinct. On the blank back side, I started to write: Jonathan’s name and his wife’s, Vanessa. Robert came next, another former co-worker-turned-friend. I missed them and felt their absence frequently. But I was still grateful for them. I was grateful for the memories, their wisdom, and the permanent ways they had shaped my life.
More faces followed theirs in my mind. The people around me in my LifeGroup. Jonathan’s replacement at work, who was very different, but also kept me sane. My boss made the list, too. Though I didn’t always love the job, he was one of the best people I’d ever reported to.
Unable to write as quickly as I could see the faces, I hummed a song to myself, a scrap of lyric that had been stuck in my head all day. It was a new release from my favorite band, a band whose music formed the soundtrack of my life. They made the list.
I dropped my shoulders and rolled my wrist, but I couldn’t stop writing. I wrote down the name of my first car, the name of the town our family had visited on summer vacation that year. I even wrote down my new iPhone—the voice of shame tried to yell at me again, but I didn’t hear it. The iPhone didn’t make the list as a tech toy. It made the list because Camille and I would FaceTime every day while I was at work, so I could see my wife and baby daughter. Such a privilege had been truly impossible for us just months earlier.
I kept writing until the group leader forced us to stop. My wrist ached, and the corners of my mouth kept spreading up into a smile. It wasn’t a feeling of gratitude, this warm pressure in my chest. The frustration and bitterness had gone even though nothing had changed for me. Instead, in acknowledging my gratitude, I found joy. Simple, profound joy.
My world changed a little that night. I still had challenges to face, but taking the time to look around and discovering gratitude in my life made me stronger. More importantly, it made me smile.