During the last few days of summer we decided to throw my son an impromptu 7th birthday party, inviting friends from our neighborhood to enjoy cake and a bouncy house. One family brought a gift—a cool superhero action figure, complete with high tech gear and a series of recorded statements that play when you press his belt buckle. Since my son has never owned one of these before, I wondered how he would respond to the toy as my husband and I pushed through cleanup after all our guests went home. (How is it that even the simplest of kid-parties sucks copious amounts of energy from adults?)
Later that day I was surprised by two reactions to the party from my son, neither of which made sense to me.
First, I found the superhero on the dining room floor, posed in an excruciating split. My son had stretched both his legs out laterally as far as they would go, so that the masked warrior sat as if he were ready to be ripped up the middle. Having never witnessed my son sit this way himself (he’s flexible, but not that flexible), nor anyone else around him, I questioned what thought or impulse lay behind the extreme contortion. Of the many choices available to his clever little hands, why arrange the doll’s anatomy like this?
Second, my son decided to remain upstairs right after the party, a place primarily meant for people in general to sleep (in their respective bedrooms) or me in specific to work (in my second floor office). Unlike the first floor of our house, the second floor has not been set up for safe, independent play, and presents multiple opportunities to get into trouble. There is delicate office equipment to damage, tucked-away toilets to clog with things that shouldn’t be flushed, expensive cosmetics to dump out, and a balcony just begging to be used as a jumping or throwing off point. Right when my husband and I were ready to take a well deserved break, my son parked himself in a zone that required extra supervision on our part instead. Some gratitude.
As I hold these two anomalies side by side in my head, certain connections begin to emerge in my heart, ones that make me cringe, as if I were attempting a split myself.
To begin, I find myself asking whether I have ever failed to respond with the appropriate gratitude when someone makes an effort for me. I am pretty sure that those closest to me—those who make the most effort the most often on my behalf— would have to answer yes if pressed with this question. I’m sure that they forgive me but am chagrined that they should have to. I don’t ever want to take for granted the sacrifices my loved ones make for me, whether great or small.
To be totally honest, I am very sure that I do this to God all the time, hang out in all the wrong places, mentally and emotionally, after receiving some significant blessing instead of abiding in pastures he’d prefer. Places where both he and I can be together until the next necessity or challenge comes up that requires our collaboration. For example, how quickly do I move onto the next worry or want in my life, without stopping to say “Thanks!” for the reprieve I’ve just received? It’s appalling how many times I have begged God for deliverance from some situation and then failed to acknowledge his intervention the moment the crisis was over. In essence, there’s still cake around my mouth from the party God’s is already throwing me when I blurt out the next “I need.” Attractive.
Another question I have to ask is why I neglect being grateful to givers in the first place, whether human or divine. I suspect that despite the superhero mom, wife, daughter, friend, and faithful follower I try to be, somewhere inside I am all twisted up.
Does part of me feel entitled to the blessings sent my way, so that I feel no indebtedness toward those who impart them? (And if so, what qualifies me to determine who is owed what on a cosmic scope?)
Or perhaps I carry some residual anger for times when the specific thing I wanted from someone never came through. A heart steeped in resentment is unlikely to pour forth appreciation. And even if a trickle of thanks does eke out, it may be laced with bitterness. As in: thanks for coming through this time, unlike last time.
Maybe—and this might be the most pitiable of explanations— I have been so assaulted by adverse circumstances that I have not been able to breathe, much less lift up my head and say thanks. I’ve become afraid to acknowledge any good thing in my life, lest it be crushed or whisked away, leaving me worse off than I was before. I may have grown so accustomed to being battered every day that the appearance of an unexpected blessing on the horizon sparks more stress in me than my ongoing continuum of crisis.
No matter the reason, I cannot stay in my “split up the middle” stance without serious damage, especially when my feelings of entitlement, anger, or trauma are directed at God. Because the narratives we believe about him (or whatever power we think runs the universe) whether true or false, conscious or repressed, shape the way see ourselves and the rest of the world. Determine whether we become more of the human being we were meant to be or less.
For years I have struggled not only with the difficulties that life has dealt me, but with also with the deep-seated conviction that they were actually afflictions that God had dealt me. Since my childhood, I have taken pain so very personally, perceiving adversity as evidence of indifference at best or indignation at worst on his part. And I have to tell you, life is hard enough without being plagued by the bewilderment, rage, and grief that inevitably arise when one sees the suffering one is going through as a form of divine punishment. Forget children’s birthday parties, these emotions will suck the life right out of you from the inside, leaving you less able to cope with conditions on the outside. Rendering you less patient, kind, and wise with others around you—and yourself, for that matter.
Interestingly enough, I was driven to adjust the action figure’s legs almost immediately after I found him. It was like I couldn’t keep looking at the impossibility of his position. Human bodies aren’t made to endure such extremes. And neither is the human soul. Maybe the mark of a real superhero is to say: enough. It’s time to stand up (however unsteadily) and walk away (however hesitantly) from the places to which I have retreated in numbness or pain, vexation or sorrow. It’s time to come clean about the trouble I’m having emotionally and spiritually. Time to share some secrets—even one secret—with a safe person.
I’ll take the dare if you will. How will it look, feel, for us when we move through life more freely, less torturously, in the way that we were designed?
Let’s find out. Together. And report back if we start to feel—and express—more gratitude. That might be the first sign that things—small but significant things—are shifting.