28 November 2013

Why Giving Thanks Matters

I began PlayFull in part because I discovered in myself a propensity to take life too seriously. Underneath this tarp of seriousness lay piles of shoulds and oughts and musts. My serious responses to certain situations were, in fact, nothing more than cover-ups for entitlement.  Meanwhile, my own sense of rightness and fairness amounted to nothing less than a large pile of…manure is not the first word that comes to mind.

If I felt treated unfairly, I devised clever ways to put things right again. If I felt overlooked, I tried to be more creative so I would get noticed. If I felt misunderstood, I would re-iterate my point until I felt the other heard me—and concurred.

In such situations it didn’t occur to me that perhaps my own sense of fairness was warped. Perhaps it’s good for me to not be the center of attention. Perhaps I should let go of my compulsion to be understood and instead learn to be a learner from others.

I discovered that when I let go of my sense of entitlement the whole relationship changed. So I began PlayFull not because I’ve got this practice down perfectly now but because I’m still learning this way of being and would like companionship in the learning process.  

Once a good friend who happens to be a psychologist said to me, “You’ve got too much of yourself on your hands, Troy.” Ouch. But that’s just what I needed to hear. “Get over yourself, already.”

I’m writing about this on Thanksgiving Day because I have seen that the practice of giving thanks is just the medicine for the disease of self-centeredness. Gratitude is the antidote to entitlement.

“What do you have that you have not received?”  The question is rhetorical, but I forget the answer so often that I need to meditate on it again and again and again, daily. Practicing gratitude is the best way to keep entitlement at bay. Life itself is a gift so anything that comes to me in the course of life is also a gift—if I can learn to receive it in faith and gratitude.

I do not deserve anything—yet notice how quickly I turn and act as if I deserve comfort and ease. My wife and I bought a home a little over a year ago. When we first moved in to our home our hearts were filled with gratitude. We felt lucky, undeserving of such a big blessing. We were grateful to life and the God of life for leading us in such a way that we could have the benefit of owning a home.

But a little while ago I found myself feeling low because of all the repairs I needed to do on our home. I became encumbered with worry and suddenly the gratitude was gone. I felt trapped and burdened. Meanwhile, I failed to realize that the privilege of even having a home is itself a gift. Entitlement was robbing me of joy.

I think of all the physical comforts we enjoy—cars, computers, clothing—and am humbled to admit that with all these blessings it is still hard to practice gratitude. I feel that my car should run perfectly all the time and when a mechanic tells me of a costly repair I notice how quick I am to feel wronged. My computer should run perfectly and when I experience the slightest bit of slowness, I grow frustrated. I feel frustrated that I cannot afford to buy a whole new wardrobe. I am tired of the same old clothes and want to dress fashionably. The other day I found myself becoming annoyed at the thought of having to change a light bulb, for Pete’s sake!

“How many ordained ministers does it take to screw in a light bulb?”  Just one—when he gets over himself.

The examples are without limit. But even these are not as serious as other forms of entitlement. I find that when I fail to practice gratitude I grow frustrated about certain intangible aspects of life to which I feel entitled.

Take the notion of “career”, for instance. I have been very blessed to spend the better part of my days in professional ministry. I get to work with people, to pray with them, encourage them, administer the sacraments, worship with them, cry and laugh with them, party and work with them.

I should be grateful for this, full stop. But then I start to compare my ministry to the ministry of others. I look at so-and-so and notice how many books they’ve published. I hear of another’s popularity: “They are the best speaker I’ve ever heard!” And I find myself ungrateful for the ministry I do have.

“Comparison is the thief of joy.” I don’t know who said this but it’s a quote that sticks in my head just now and whoever said it is a genius. When I compare myself to others I awaken entitlement. This happens because I begin to feel that I should have the kind of life that is more like theirs. I want that life for myself. I grow discontent with the life I have and begin plotting and scheming to make my fairy tale world come true. The exercise is doomed to frustration, of course. I cannot live another’s life. I can only live my own. I cannot be another. I can only be myself.

As a God-believer, I am convinced each one of us is in this world as a gift of God. You are here for a reason and God wants you to be you, not someone else. Our culture’s insistent conformities do violence to the intrinsic dignity God has imbued within each person. When I begin to think that I need to be more like another, it is like spitting on the face of beauty. “I must…I should…I ought to be more like that person over there.” No, you shouldn’t. Even being yourself is not a matter of should or should not. It’s a matter of gift: it is a privilege to be yourself because you yourself are a gift. 

God gives you you. No, that’s not a typo. God gives you you. And the you God made is a gift to the world, truly.

This Thanksgiving Day, I encourage you to remember that all of life is a gift.  And believing that all of life is a gift is the most life-giving thing you can do.

Today, I want to practice giving thanks as if my life depends on it. Because it does.  I invite you to do the same. Give thanks with a grateful heart.



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