At the end of April, I had the privilege of co-leading, with my dear friend Susan Forshey, the women’s retreat at my church, Bethany Presbyterian Church. The retreat was called “The Unforced Rhythms of Grace,” and we focused on living a contemplative life in the midst of a connected culture.
Each Tuesday for the next six weeks, I will be posting excerpts from the talks I gave at the retreat. Today’s post is the first part of my morning talk, “Medusa Has a Headache: How Gratitude Changes Everything.”
To give you a sense of context: Susan spoke first, sharing fascinating insights into neuroscience and the ways we can enlist and work with (rather than fight against) our brains and bodies to help us grow in our ability to exercise contemplative attention and so grow spiritually.
The brilliant almost-doctor Forshey has shared with you the neuroscience behind willpower and hence the neuroscience behind contemplative attention.
It’s enough to make my head spin. Or ache. Or both.
Now it’s my turn to talk. I’m afraid I can’t tell you what happens in your brain when you’re tired or over-stimulated. But I know what it is to be tired and over-stimulated.
I have four kids and work part-time as a freelance writer and editor, so I know a bit about the challenges of living contemplatively—or at least of trying to—in the midst of chaos.
This morning and again this afternoon, I’m going to talk about three practical ways to be contemplative in the midst of 21st century city life.
Practical is rooted in the word “practice,” and the three things I’m going to talk about very much fall under the category of “Practice.” They’re things we have to do over and over and over before we become any good at them. And even then, there’s always more to learn, always room for growth.
I hope that doesn’t intimidate or worry anyone. It shouldn’t. As disciples of Jesus, we get to live in the unforced rhythms of grace, but to live in such rhythms takes practice because those rhythms are so different from the pace we’re used to living at.
To get us started this morning, I’m going to read you a post from my blog. I wrote this last fall, shortly after my oldest son’s 8th birthday. It’s called “Medusa Has a Headache.”
I wake up with a headache. My sinuses feel like they’re stuffed with gauze. Almost every muscle in my body aches. I do not want to get out of bed.
I lie here, wondering how I can get out of living this particular day. Could I plead being more ill than I actually am so Doug will stay home and watch the kids and I can sleep my achy body well?
But Doug has meetings that he can’t miss, not to mention actual work to do.
“We’re out of Tylenol,” I moan when he comes in to tell me tea is ready. “I took the last one, and I forgot to get more when I went to the drug store on Tuesday.”
“Come have tea,” he says, “and then I’ll go to Safeway and get you some.”
After tea, I go back to bed while Doug takes Jane up to the store for Tylenol. I lie there alternately feeling sorry for myself and berating myself for my lack of foresight and want of organization that meant Doug had to make an early morning Safeway run.
When he gets home, I take two Tylenols and haul myself back out of bed.
The kitchen sink is still piled with pots and pans from last night’s dinner that I didn’t wash before I went to bed.
The sofa is covered with a pile of washed but unfolded laundry that I’ve been moving off my bed each night for a week at least, only to move it back to my bed in the morning so we have somewhere to sit during the day. I swear I fold clothes. I do. But that pile multiplies like rabbits.
And the babies have already strewn sixteen or twenty books and Babybugs all over the floor.
I feel like I clean up the same messes day after day after day.
“That’s because you do,” Doug says.
“I’m sorry about the Tylenol,” I say.
“Don’t worry about it.”
But I want to worry about it. I want to feel wretched about the way my lack of planning creates more work for other people on a near daily basis. I want to hate myself and my life right now.
“It’s just so typical of me,” I say. “How I never manage to get my act together, how I’m always waiting till the last minute to do things, and then I don’t do half the stuff I want to do because I don’t have time. Because I’m so disorganized and such a procrastinator. It’s no wonder I never get anything done.”
Doug calmly cracks eggs into a dish. Apparently he’s used to this. “Hey,” he says, “you made a frickin pinata for Jack’s birthday party.”
Jack always wants a pinata for his birthday party. This year, he wanted a Perseus party with a Medusa head pinata.
The party store didn’t have a Medusa head pinata.
So Jack and I had to make one. A half hour before his party started, I was frantically blow-drying the stupid thing because, once again, I had failed to start this little project in a timely manner or plan my day well enough to finish it without panic.
When I remind Doug of this, he simply says, “But you made it.” Then he pours the eggs into the pan. They sizzle and bubble.
Clearly he’s not getting it. He doesn’t understand what a wretched, disorganized mess I truly am. I decide that if he, my husband and best friend, doesn’t understand, no one will. It is a depressing thought.
The rest of the day unfolds more or less along these lines, with me feeling sorry for myself because I’m exhausted and disorganized and I have a cold and a pile of dishes and a pile of laundry and a pile of work that I never manage to finish.
Then I get the mail. Among the junk and the flyers advertising sales at nearby chain grocery stores is a magazine from Compassion International, through whom we sponsor a child. The cover article is about child prostitution in Brazil.
Suddenly my world becomes extremely clear.
I realize as I look at the girl on the cover just how safe and clean and, yes, easy my life is. So I have a trifling little cold and dishes and laundry that never end. I don’t have to fight sexual predators on a daily basis. I don’t have to watch my daughter and sons fight them. I don’t have to choose between starvation and prostitution.
Used to be, reading things like this would just deepen my self-loathing. Today, though, it draws me up short, makes me see my life through other lenses.
I ask God to forgive me for my lack of gratitude this day, for my willful loathing of my good, safe, clean, well-fed, housed, and healthy life.
The pile of laundry is still here, mounded on the bed once more. I don’t know when I’m going to get to it all. But it doesn’t much matter anymore.
I pick up a towel and fold it, and I pray for those children in Brazil, for our sponsored child in Guatemala, asking God to give them a life as good as mine.
A life as good as mine.
The practice that has most helped me grow in contemplative attention is gratitude.
Shortly after my daughter was born—she’s five now—I started being grateful for my life. To this day, I’m not altogether sure what happened to effect this change. And I do mean change. To understand how radical a shift of perspective this was for me, you need to be introduced to a few rather embarrassing pieces of my past.