Since I started my contentment challenge, which has been going pretty well so far, I decided to do a two part post on gratitude and being thankful for what we have been given. This is part one.
I turned thirty just over a year ago and it was kind of a big deal for me. My friends will tell you this. In the weeks leading up to the big day, I often fluctuated between wanting to celebrate and wanting to cry. I couldn't even get the word thirty to roll off my tongue. Thirty felt grown up. Thirty felt like a serious business suit - a pencil skirt with Louboutins, when you're used to wearing jeans and a pair of Toms with a hole at the toe. Your twenties still feel young. The world gives you permission to be figuring things out – you're graduating college, settling into a job, finding a place to live, wading through relationships. They urge you not to take yourself too seriously. Make mistakes, they say. Learn. Adventure. Grow. But as you inch closer to thirty, people kind of expect you to have it together. Or maybe I just expected myself to have it together.
As I navigated my twenties (navigated is a loose term, as it was more of a blind stumble) I imagined thirty would be like reaching some kind of adult life pinnacle. My ideas of 30 when I was 20, 23, 27, were turning out to be just that - ideas, dreams. I had all of these expectations for myself because the thirty-somethings I knew were married, often with kids, usually with a house – sometimes in the process of building a whole house – and pretty settled into their lives. When it came to those life choices and circumstances, I was not on the same page. I was basically scrambling to find the page, hoping the teacher didn't ask me to read aloud. I felt like I was behind. Can I just have another go at 28 and 29, please? I haven't done enough yet! I haven't had enough time!
Maybe you find yourself feeling entirely opposite. You're approaching twenty or thirty or forty feeling like life has, for the most part, just worked out. You found the spouse and he/she is obviously the BEST in the whole world, or at least in your Facebook post. You have the kids or the dog or both. You built the house. Your career took off, or it didn't but you feel okay with where you're sitting. But, you're bored. You feel stuck in the mundane and you're slugging it out. Somehow getting everything we think we want doesn't usher in unending happiness. It doesn't deliver the goods the way we dream it will. So, then what?
In the spring prior to my birthday, I was in a Bible study and we went through the book, A Thousand Gifts by Ann Voskamp. If you’ve never read it, I recommend it. Ann is a beautiful, poetic writer who really picks at the heart of where we find our joy and contentment. This isn't about happiness. We're talking a deep-in-your-heart joy. I was struck at the time that she was actually able to come up with 1,000 separate things to write down - 1,000 separate gifts she had been given. On the verge of thirty, with almost nothing in my life going according to my plans, I felt like I had maybe five things to be thankful for and that was if I rounded up.
I had seen other people hit 3-0 with a lot of celebration and excitement. My sister’s husband threw her a surprise party. Another friend’s husband put together a book of notes from all the people in her life who loved her. With no joy for 30 and no plans to celebrate, I determined I wanted to make thirty significant anyway. So I decided to spend the thirty days before my thirtieth birthday writing down thirty things each day for which I could be grateful. In her book, Ann writes, Being joyful isn't what makes you grateful. Being grateful is what makes you joyful. That punched me in the guts. I needed a fresh word on joy because I was feeling everything but joyful leading up to thirty. I was feeling left behind. Forgotten. Not enough. My dreams had shattered over and over. I was throwing myself a spectacular pity party.
So, I went to work on my list each night. For the first week, it was a challenge. I’d get stuck around number twelve and wonder what else there was to be thankful for that day, or in my life as a whole. Midway through this 30 day challenge, I journaled about my progress:
I can write all the things I'm grateful for up to 900 or 9,000 but I still feel the weight of, "This isn't how it's supposed to be. This isn't what I dreamed and this is never what I wanted."
Clearly it was going well. But, as the month went on, I found myself thinking throughout the day, “Yes, this makes the list" or "Definitely writing that down." Knowing that I would write something down each night made me more conscious of every moment as a gift. That text message from my mom? Gift. A smile from a stranger? Gift. Rain? Gift. The smell of my sweet nieces/nephews after a bath. Baptizing Kaely and Abby. Learning hard work from parents/grandparents. Seeing a counselor. Learning to wakeboard. Sweet friends who understand. The watercolor sky. Gift, gift, gift.
As people with plans and dreams and expectations that often go unmet, we tend to be easily irritated and our default position is one of complaining and discontent. This is mostly because we like to be the point and if we're not, or if life isn't going how we thought it might, we're mad - mad at others, mad at God, mad at ourselves. But if we truly believe that there is someone who orchestrates our days, then nothing is happenstance. None of those unfulfilled dreams go unnoticed. Nothing is mistake. I recently read the book, Anything by Jennie Allen and in it she wrote, “You have to thank God for the seemingly good and the seemingly bad because really, we don't know the difference [until we get to heaven].” So if we view it all as gift instead of good or bad, we not only have a better outlook but we are that much closer to joy. I realize this is more difficult when the bad is a heavy, heartbreaking grief. I know because I have felt it. In that, the only salve for your wounds I can offer is the promise of Psalm 30:5. And it may feel like a very long night, but the promise is joy on the other side.
I was told recently that I seem more relaxed than I used to be and I would say it's because I stopped trying to control. Grasping for control spins you around and around – constantly searching and striving and never really getting there - until you're left puking off the side of the merry-go-round. I was so concerned with getting there - reaching those self-imposed or even society-imposed benchmarks and milestones - that I didn't know how to enjoy anything. I woke up every day trudging through, waiting for the day my life could really start, the day when all those dreams came true, so I missed a lot of good gifts and missed out on a lot of joy.
I finished my thirty lists of thirty things and on my 30th birthday, I wrote in my journal:
It's snowing this morning. I lit my favorite candle, made breakfast and coffee. It's so quiet I can hear the clock over my desk ticking. My house is quieter than I thought it would be on my 30th birthday. Smaller. Emptier. No babies crying for mommy. No one to kiss my face and say good morning. My life is not bad. It is different. Because of all the choices I have made in my given circumstances that have led me to sitting here alone... And that is okay. I can choose joy.
For the record, my friends put together an amazing brunch for my 30th birthday and I have never felt more special or loved than I did that day. It was more than I could have ever known to ask for on any list. I really think that’s why I enjoyed 30 (and, so far, 31) so much – because I learned to be grateful. I learned to find joy in the every day and 30 became the most life-giving, heart-stretching, laughter-filled, best year of my entire life.
All around you, every day, in the small and the extraordinary there is a gift. Don't wait for life to start when _____ finally happens. You'll miss the joy of today and today is a pretty good day. Joy awaits.