In the midst of an overly full October—birthdays, a trip to see my parents, a church play, and a few other things on top of all the usual fullness of life with four children—one afternoon stands out. It was the Thursday before the play, in which both I and my kids were to perform. That morning we did our usual school routine, but then the afternoon was blessedly free, a gift in the midst of a very full month.
Late in the afternoon, my oldest son came into my bedroom where I was snatching a few moments to catch up on email. “I’m going to make tea,” he announced, “and then I’ll bring it upstairs and we can run through our lines.”
“Great,” I said, only half-listening.
Ten minutes later, he came up bearing a tray laden with cups, saucers, the teapot and creamer, and a plate of buttered toast. He and his siblings piled on my bed, and we drank tea and munched toast while we ran through our lines and practiced our songs for the church play, and then we chatted and the kids told silly jokes and we laughed together until it was time to begin our evening routine of chores, dinner, stories, and bed. So we piled off the bed and downstairs, scattering to our various duties.
Later that evening, I remembered that cozy time of togetherness and realized it was one of the sweetest hours of an already delightful day. In some ways, it was nothing special, but that’s part of what made it special—that this is my life, these moments of camaraderie with my children or my husband, or all of us together. And I marveled. Who is this glad and grateful woman living in my body?
Anyone who’s been hanging around here for any length of time knows that my life used always to hang in the balance and be found wanting. But the practice of these habits I’ve been sharing with you the past weeks has transformed my vision. As I cast the circle and become increasingly lashed to the mast, as I lift up my head more often, I find that my life is anchored to something—Someone!—permanent and abiding, which allows me to feel spacious rather than harried, which in turn makes it possible for me to be more present and pay closer attention, to really see the good gifts God has lavished upon me—such good gifts as eyes to see and ears to hear and a mouth to sing (and laugh!) and people to love and be loved by.
The final habit I am going to share with you is actually the first habit I adopted, eight years ago now. It is the habit of saying thank you, and its practice is what eventually made it possible for me to see and receive the other habits, which had been staring me in the face all along!
At the time that I began, I felt my life was unfair. I was newly pregnant with my twins, though I didn’t yet know they were twins. I was newly aware that my dreams of being an up-and-coming young author were rapidly wrecking on the rocks of reality: my first book, which I’d imagined would be a harbinger of good things to come, had negative books sales; my novel, six years in the making, had been rejected by 19 agents; and I had a stack of magazine rejection letters an inch and a half thick.
Life felt hard and dark. Even looking back, that fall and winter seem shrouded in dark fog, like I was always living in twilight. In a way, I was. Everything was a battle. I was Paul kicking against the goads. I was a Pharisee rejecting the cornerstone. Life was not turning out the way I expected, much less the way I wanted. And I was mad. And I felt simultaneously guilty for being mad. Enter the harpies. Who do you think you are? Why should you have a good life anyway? You’re such a spoiled princess. My thoughts swung like a pendulum between self-importance and self-loathing.
But as I practiced saying thank you, slowly, slowly my gaze shifted from myself to God. It’s still shifting in that direction. I still too often have one or both eyes on myself, but God in His mercy continues to draw me out of this posture of incurvatus in se and into the freedom and fullness of life in His kingdom. Saying thank you was the first step out of myself and into the wideness of God’s mercy and goodness.
Though I didn’t know it eight years ago when I embraced this habit, saying thank you is a posture of humility. Humility is the opposite of incurvatus in se. It is a recognition that all I have and all I am is sheer gift. Not earned, not achieved, not born of my own making or doing or striving or manipulating. Given. And gifts presuppose a Giver. To receive a gift, I must unfold myself, open my hands, my eyes, my arms, my heart.
Saying thank you opened my eyes to this reality: that life is a gift. My life. The life of this world. It opened my mind to the Reality of Emmanuel, God-with-us, as the basic fact of existence: the All who always is all everywhere. It opened my heart to receive His love which I had so steadfastly refused.
These days my vista is more or less the same as it was eight years ago—my kids are older, which brings its own joys and challenges; I live in a different house in a different town, which has perks and drawbacks; and my writing career continues to be non-existent—but my vision has shifted radically. Saying thank you was the first step toward living with my head up and my arms wide, my whole being lashed to the mast of Jesus’ love, which surrounds me as with a shield. These days I see the joy more than the challenges, the perks more than the drawbacks, and the manifold gifts that failure has brought. And I am thankful.
I am beyond thankful. I am downright giddy at the ways God has transformed my sight. Every day, I see God’s goodness lavished upon me, mercy upon mercy, grace upon grace, gift upon gift—such good gifts as eyes to see and ears to hear and a mouth to sing (and laugh!) and people to love and be loved by.
That is habit six, friends: Say thank you. Don’t force yourself to feel grateful. Simply notice something good or beautiful, and say thank you for it.
I hope and pray that as you practice the six habits that I’ve shared with you these past weeks, you will experience what I have experienced: as I enter more deeply into these habits, I find I am ever more thankful—not as a discipline (though it is sometimes that) but as an expression of genuine joy and wonder, a response of praise for the amazing gift of transformation God has wrought in me. I give Him the little loaves and fishes of these six habits, and He blesses my efforts and multiplies them beyond my wildest dreams. What else can I do but give thanks?