This Thanksgiving, Thank God for Little Things — Even the Fact That You Can Breathe
Unless we have harrowing experiences that remind us of our fragility, we’re more inclined to ingratitude.
Have you ever thanked God that you can breathe? I have. Lots of times. No, I haven’t been water-boarded — not yet anyway. Last March, I came down with a nasty case of pneumonia, mostly in my left lung. I’d had it before, and thought I knew the ropes: three weeks of hack, cough, spit, sleep, repeat. And powerful antibiotics.
A trip to Urgent Care confirmed the diagnosis, but unlike my earlier experience, the antibiotics didn’t make any difference. My symptoms got worse. The ribs on my left side started to hurt like crazy. I thought that maybe I’d fractured my ribs from all the coughing. Another trip to Urgent Care and another chest x-ray ruled that out, so I tried another antibiotic.
Each one of us is about three minutes from death every moment of our lives.
Still, nothing. I kept getting worse. After almost a week of this, I couldn’t walk up a flight of stairs without stopping every few steps. Then, I could hardly walk at all without losing my breath. Finally, I started to hear choir music, which no one else could hear.
For my wife Ginny, this was one symptom too many. She dragged me to the emergency room, where a doctor ordered a CAT scan and discovered something much worse than pneumonia. I had pleural effusion (I’d never heard of it either), in which sticky, fibrous fluid fills the chest cavity outside the lung, causing the lung to stick to your insides. That’s not supposed to happen.
Thus began a two-month ordeal, including two-weeks in the hospital, ICU, surgery and ten hours under general anesthesia, a harrowing thirty-minute ordeal after surgery when I thought I was suffocating, more needles than my grandmother kept in her pin cushion, three, centimeter-thick tubes sticking out of my left side and draining blood and clear fluid into clear plastic containers, and heavy opiates that took more time to quit than I’d spent in the hospital. And a Foley catheter.
In our fallen human state, gratitude doesn’t come naturally.
Each one of us is about three minutes from death every moment of our lives. One misplaced piece of popcorn shrimp or an allergic reaction that seals up your throat and you’re dead before the ambulance arrives. Yet few of us ever stop to thank God that we can breathe. I do, but only because I know so acutely what it’s like not to be able to. And because I’m reminded it of it every time I yawn and feel residual pain in my left side. Nothing too bad. Just enough to remember.
In our fallen human state, gratitude doesn’t come naturally. Unless we have near-death experiences that remind us of our fragility, we’re more inclined to ingratitude. Sure, most of us have bouts of thankfulness when something great happens — we graduate from college, get married, get a new house or a big raise. But these are rare events, not nearly common enough to turn gratitude into an automatic habit that can eventually become a virtue.
I’m glad that, as a country, we set aside a day to thank God for His manifold blessings to us. But habits don’t form with one celebration a year. We all need repetition. I need it, and you need it too. The details aren’t complicated. We must bring our blessings to mind, consider the alternatives, and focus on the blessings rather than the alternatives. Unfortunately, our fallenness discourages such mindfulness.
Here’s one suggestion that doesn’t require a deadly disease: make a list of the ordinary things you should be grateful for — health, freedom, shelter, family, friends, pets, breathing — stick it on the side of your computer screen, and thank God every day for these blessings that would otherwise recede into the background.
If you thank God for the small things every day, gratitude will eventually become not merely something you do on special occasions, but a filter that colors every moment of your life.