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“Primero, quiero dar gracias a Dios por otro día más de vida…”
First, I want to thank God for one more day of life. Working with women’s empowerment groups on the dusty, poor outskirts of Guayaquil, Ecuador, I heard these words more times than I can count. Our meetings began with prayer led by one of the participants, and, without fail, their prayers began with praising God. After thanking God for being alive, the women often continued on to thank God for the sun, the sky, their children, their homes, and for their “daily bread.” And these were not rote words. Their eyes were shut lovingly, and their faces were strong with devotion as they prayed them.
Sitting in plastic chairs outside two room houses whose cane walls and dirt floors held heart-wrenching stories of poverty, hunger, alcoholism, and abuse, the words of thanksgiving that opened each prayer were particularly striking. In the midst of all these women carried, their basic posture to God was fierce, deep gratitude for the gift of life. Interesting how “the poor,” who at first glance had very little to be grateful for, taught me more about gratitude than anybody else.
Last week, I wasn’t feeling very grateful. Ministry was draining me. Along with the usual demands, I was walking with some parishioners in a particularly painful situation that required lots of time and emotion. Overwhelmed and under-slept, I was cranky as could be.
On one of those cranky mornings, I flipped mindlessly through my Facebook feed. A friend, Mark, who is a cancer survivor, had posted this, “Overwhelmed today with gratitude. I get to be busy. There was a time when I had to stop. I just keep trying to move forward and upward.” I get to be busy. It hit me. Most mornings, I look over my schedule at all the things I have to do. How different would it be if I started the day looking ahead at all the things I get to do? I knew I needed an attitude adjustment, or more accurately, a gr-attitude adjustment.
There are many barriers to gratitude, and some are legitimate. I don’t want to minimize the reality of life. Last week, I found out that a dear friend is sick, and it is heavy on my heart. Stress and strained relationships are real. We’re humans, and some days we’re just cranky. I’ve been through depression, and I know it’s not something you can just throw off like bedcovers. It doesn’t help to beat ourselves up when we struggle to be grateful. And it doesn’t help to walk around in superficial optimism, either.
Still, sometimes, we can make a shift. There is a difference between sitting in the muck of life and wallowing in it. Sitting in it, we are honest: we acknowledge it’s there, but we don’t have to writhe around in it like a dog in a mud puddle. There’s a difference between a healthy vulnerability that allows us to share our struggles with others and being consumed with complaining. There is some kind of warped pleasure I can get from clinging to the negative, from replaying scenes in my mind and repeating them to others. It’s almost addictive. Mark’s Facebook post reminded me that we have some choice in this cycle.
On the grumpy morning that I read his words, I dropped the phone and went to my journal. I started writing: I am alive. The sun is shining. I can breathe, and walk, and read, and write…and on and on. Once I got started, the list took on a life of its own. I was no longer overwhelmed with surface negativity but with awe.
It’s amazing what happens to us spiritually, psychologically, and physiologically when we begin to name what we’re grateful for. It forces us to zoom out and view the big picture of our lives. It doesn’t erase the reality of pain and struggle, but it puts it in perspective. I should’ve known this; my Ecuadorian friends showed me. Living authentic gratitude is a both-and.
Thank you, God, for another day of life.