I could hear the trees crackling in the cold as I headed out to start my car. The wind was quiet, but the cold was so intense it imposed a quiet stillness upon the neighbourhood, as if willing it to silence. It'd been a long week: an overlong stay from cold that had racked my throat and sapped my energy along with a difficult week at work. None of these mattered however, as I started my car and scraped the ice from the windshield. The sun beat down from a clear sky, bringing light but little warmth.
There were days I wondered why I bothered at all. Days when my life seemed little more than a treadmill upon which I ran with no destination or purpose. Today however, I disdained to entertain those ideas. As easy as it was to focus on the struggle of life, the struggle to making ends meet and my relationships work, more rewarding was the concentrated effort on seeing what could be. What one had and what might be in the future.
This past summer I'd had the great fortune to meet the woman of my dreams, a woman who loved me for who I was, in all my strengths and weaknesses. Unexpected and unprecedented, it'd taken me a while to accept it for what it was... a gift from God. Still, a part of me scoffed at the idea of an ideal relationship. Part of me brought back the memories of countless "false starts", of relationships that hadn't worked. Of relationships that had caused nothing but pain. Some days it was hard to hold on to what I had in the face of these painful memories.
I let the car warm for ten minutes before climbing in. The warmth covered me, and for a moment, I rested in its embrace before shifting gears and heading out. Memories were powerful things. Most of us lived, whether we knew it or not, by the force of our experiences. Unfortunately, it was these very 'lessons' that worked to keep us from experiencing so many good things in life.
As a teacher, Experience is narrow minded, and too often we give it the power to influence our future. Experience most often teaches from the basis of fear. It does not allow for exception or the exceptional. And if something happens that does not fit into the pattern of our life, the typical response is to shut it down. Better the devil we know... or so the saying goes.
For many years, this was true for me. It was easy to look at my life or at the people around me as their lives became absorbed by tragedy or apathy or both, and wonder why I even bothered pursuing my dreams. Everyone struggled. Why did I think that an exceptional life was possible for me? Of course, I never really thought about what "the exceptional life" looked like, only that I was certainly not living it. And that is where experience often fails us. While the emotional memories and warning signs can be powerful, they are often vague and undefined. After a while, we no longer think about what life could be, only that it is a disappointment. The real tragedy is that we often don't even know why.
The highway was clean, the snow piled lightly on the shoulder as I whipped along, staring ahead and at the empty, snow covered fields to each side. Stouffville was a small town about ten miles north from where I lived. Bethany had an important exam the next day. I was heading out to give her a study break, and a bit of brain food. (i.e. chocolate) Twenty minutes later I pulled onto Stouffville road, a hilly, country road that was often difficult to drive in the rough Canadian winter. It was clear today however, and I zipped along, anxious to see my girl.
It'd been a long time since I'd felt this way about someone. In fact, I was sure I'd never felt this way about anyone. Just the thought of seeing her, of holding her close, of laughing with her, was enough to bring a smile to my face. Every time I thought about her, about what she meant, I could feel my emotions quiver...
I passed a gas station and debated pulling over to get some snacks before deciding to wait until I got into town. Just past the gas station on the right hand side was an old cemetery. I slowed, glancing at the pale grave stones partially covered by snow, wondering, as I always did, about the lives of the people now gone. Had they reached for the stars? Had they lived as they wanted to live? Had they experienced the fullness of life?
I have always thought it amazing when to hear someone speak positively about life. Humanity is not set for 'positive thinking' and life deals more blows then rewards. And worse, in our consumer culture, we are not taught to be happy, but to be unhappy. Despite being the richest continent on the planet, we are taught from the time we are children that we are in need. Of something. Of everything. A new TV. A new car. A new house. New furniture or lawn equipment or computer stuff. New make up or clothes or power tools. Our culture is set against gratitude, because it is need that sells, not contentment. And of all the things that make our lives full, perhaps it is gratitude... simple thankfulness... that is most important.
I hear it all the time. This warning not to look at the world through rose colored glasses. True enough, if you're looking at those around you. When it comes to our vision of the world, we must teach ourselves to see the need in others and the blessings in our own lives. This is the proper view of the world, I think. The Kingdom idea that Jesus had in mind. Thankfulness is important because it is based on what is already present, and unlike experience, is detailed and sure.
Thank you, Lord, for my family.
Thank you, Lord, for my car.
Thank you, Lord, for my job and a place to live.
Thank you, Lord, for my loving wife, my partner in this crazy world.
Bitterness arises because too often we allow our culture tell us what we don't have, we allow it to muddle our understanding between need and want, and we allow experience to teach us that an exceptional life is impossible.
I waited for the light to turn green, smiling in anticipation of seeing my girl. I glanced at the bag of chocolate on my front seat. It would probably take her two months to go through it, I thought, unable to stop grinning. I pulled in the driveway a minute later, only to hear Micah, their family dog, go crazy in the hallway.
The half Lab rubbed against my legs, wagging his tail and pushing his grey whiskered face into my neck. Bethany's parents laughed as I finally made my way into the hallway. I chatted with them for a while, enjoying it as I always do, until finally she came down. My heart beat a little faster as I kissed her and held her tight. I wasn't sure there were any words that could accurately convey my emotions at that moment, save one: exceptional...
It's easy to look at life and see what's missing. It's easy because it is exactly what our culture teaches us to do. Much harder is the practice of looking at our life and being thankful for what we do have. My prayer this week, as we continue in the Christmas season, is that not only will we realize how much we have, but how much we can give. Not only with gifts, but with smiles as well. With a love that only God can give. And perhaps the greatest gift of all, the echo of a life filled with thankfulness.