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On Gratefulness

November 26, 2014

It’s not happiness that makes us grateful; it’s gratefulness that makes us happy.

-David Steindl-Rast, TEDGlobal2013

I absolutely wasn’t intending to write a cliché gratitude post this Thanksgiving, but driving home this evening I had a startling realization that changed my mind.

I was thinking about travel — about how, as a teenager, I obsessively pined over traveling to Europe.  Every year, they advertised two-week summer European trips in the halls of my private college prep high school, a kind of pseudo-educational vacation for teenagers, but it was something I knew my family could never afford.  But still, I deeply longed to go, every year; seeing the posters start popping up in the spring only intensified my desire.

The first opportunity I had to travel overseas was right after my sophomore year of college, when I spent six weeks with a delightful group of peers studying literature all across the British countryside.  At the end of the trip, I left our study abroad group and caught a flight across the channel to Paris, meeting up with two of my college friends who had done the equivalent study-abroad trip in France.  We had a beautiful few days in Paris; Emily and Kirsten, who had already been there most of the summer, kindly indulged me in the typical Parisian tourist’s regime — the Louvre, the Musée d’Orsay, Notre-Dame, Versailles, eating baguettes and cheese with a bottle of wine on the grass in front of the Eiffel Tower.

But what struck me, as I was reminiscing over that summer out of the blue tonight, was that I was in Paris with Emily & Kirsten the very last week before I turned 20 years old (in fact, the first person to wish me happy birthday was the airport security agent checking ID’s at Charles de Gaulle on my flight home).  I was 19 — just 19! — and I had casually “flown over to Paris to meet up with friends” for the week, or at least, that’s how I explained it every time someone asked about my summer plans that year.  To think that I had spent so many years in school longing for a two-week study trip; a few years later I was given the incomparable gift of a week with wonderful friends in a beautiful, world-class city.

I was stunned, sitting in the car tonight, as I suddenly put those two disparate stages of life next to each other — the deep yearning to travel, feeling as though I’d never get the opportunity; and later, the deep and unexpected joy of traveling with friends as a teenager in France in the summertime.  What’s more, in the decade since my Parisian summer, I’ve added nearly two dozen more countries to my travel itinerary, in Asia and Europe and Central America, seeing and experiencing cultures and events I’d never have dreamed as a teenager just wanting to see the world.  That deep yearning I experienced as a young student has been so completely, and magnificently, fulfilled, over and over again, in the last decade of my life.

I know that we don’t always get the deep longings of our heart filled so completely; but I also know that I certainly don’t spend enough time meditating, in gratitude, on the ways that God has met me in my longings, even the ones I cannot articulate so well as this one, and provided for me in ways beyond all my hopes.  And, as the Benedictine monk David Stiendl-Rast so elegantly articulates in the TED talk linked above, every moment of our lives brings opportunity to be grateful, if only we take the time to stop and look for it.  So here are a few more things that, upon reflection, I am deeply grateful for this year:

  • Just four years ago I was a brand-new teacher, convinced that education was merely a pit-stop in my career path.  The work and the students were overwhelmingly difficult, and I had little support or encouragement; there were many, many dark days that first year.  Today, I am grateful to feel highly effective at the work that I do; to be surrounded by a close and supportive community of colleagues, administrators, and friends; to have opportunities to lead and grow; to have life-giving relationships with students; and to see a divine plan in where I’m working and the work ahead of me.  I have a greater sense of hope and purpose as an educator this year than I ever thought possible four years ago, and needs and desires that I could not even name then have been fulfilled to overflowing in this past year.
  • When I was a child, all I wanted was my own room (sidenote – I never got it, perpetually sharing with my younger sister), and as an introvert, I craved personal and private space to decompress, but didn’t know then what my spirit really needed.  Today, I am grateful to have not only my own room, but my own house that I actually own:  a space which is full of light and peace and possibility, that I love living in and cannot believe I have been blessed with.
  • In the wake of much loss in my family this year, I am increasingly grateful for the time that I have to spend with my dad, who is a gracious and kind and generous man of God.  I’m grateful that we can speak truthfully and authentically to each other, that we can laugh and work and play together, that he has endeavored to make some of my interests (coffee and crosswords, to name a few) his own, that he gives generously and models humility.
  • I am deeply grateful for my church, which is the first church I have ever attended that feels like a true spiritual home.  I have no doubts that St. George’s is where God has specifically led me to, to grow and learn.  I have been abundantly blessed to have meaningful opportunities to serve and to walk deeper into relationship with others in my church family.  I am grateful that He has faithfully brought us through a season of upheaval, and is stirring up new and life-giving work in our midst.

It is not a coincidence, I think, that each of these blessings has been born out of a sense of great loss, or despair, or desire, or uncertainty.  None of them were blessings that I could have designed for myself or simply worked hard enough to achieve.  They are all superlative gifts, given by the Father of good gifts, the God “unto whom all hearts are open, and all desires known.”

I have deep desires, still; unmet needs and yearnings and troubles that all too often preoccupy my focus and mental energies.  I freely admit that I don’t spend enough time just being grateful, and I rarely look for opportunities to stop in what I am doing and be grateful for what is.  Which is why it feels cliché to stumble through a list of things I’m grateful for on Thanksgiving — gratefulness is not an annual laundry list to be recited before a meal; it’s meant to be a habit, holistically born out of moments of stillness and reflection when we connect who we are and where we have been with the work that God is doing in us now.  The faithfulness we have seen, sometimes over decades and often unnoticed.  And the grace that has sheltered us, even with with our unmet needs and yearnings still clamoring for our attention.

Father, give us wisdom to see Your hand of abundant provision in our needs and desires; help us to mold our hearts towards gratefulness, for in You all our desires are fulfilled.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Mary Wolf permalink
    November 27, 2014 9:01 am

    Heidi, I really enjoyed reading this. Knowing you made it specially meaningful. May God bless you even mutter this next year. (Do half to know there see educators like you.)

  2. November 27, 2014 2:09 pm

    Gorgeous D! Can’t wait to see the refuge of light and space in less than a month. I’m so grateful for you my friend.

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