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.

By Jay Richards Published on November 24, 2016

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.

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  • L. Young

    Thanks for sharing! Thanking God for another day of life and breath! 🙂

  • Deacon Keith Fournier

    Dear Jay
    Thank you for this beautiful call and reminder of the great gift of life and all that comes along with it. Jesus is Lord.
    Happy Thanksgiving

  • Estelline

    Beautifully written–thank you!

  • Wayne Cook

    Me too! I had over a hundred blood clots on my lungs 5 years ago, nearly dying from the illness! SO thankful to be alive!!
    Great article!!!

  • Howard Rosenbaum

    Thankfulness. Possibly one of the most discounted attributes w/which we as believers should be framing our world. A distinction that we who profess allegiance to a benevolent creator would do well to recognize more often. Sure we all have disappointments …or worse that attempt entrance into this life w/with we have been gifted. The beauty of this is that it is our thankfulness expressed in the mist of challenge, not for the challenge but in the midst of it, in spite of it & in a victorious stand against it that thanksgiving /thankfullness takes on its most influential role. Should we choose to be pleasing to our Father, for whom we owe our very breath, then it will be impossible to do so w/out some sense of thanksgiving. Thanksgiving is the voice of faith , w/out which it is not more difficult to, but impossible to please God. Hey, I’m thankful that in spite of any surprise appearance to the contrary, or even recurring episodes of displeasure w/whatever, it is this persuasion expressing itself w/a thankful heart (note a head is not a heart ) that places us confidently before our God – knowing that we have the assurance needed for whatever may come across the proverbial path of life …

  • Jennifer Hartline

    So very thankful that you’ve recovered. Happy Thanksgiving, Jay.

  • Thank you, Jay. There is something that I’m grateful for today, but I’d rather write it privately (at first) if I could. Awesome things can happen, with little hints of God hidden within their details, but, like Elijah on the mountain of God, you have to be still enough to discern that (according to the Hebrew) thin silence, and hear the voice it carries.

    Thanks again, Jay. Thanks again.

  • Mo86

    Wow, how awful! I am hoping you’ve made a full recovery.

    Thanks for the good reminder.

  • Liz Litts

    I am five years cancer free this year! I am thankful to be here.

  • SophieA

    Thanks, Jay, for this beautiful article on this unusual Thanksiving Day this year. Tonight my husband of 38 years was transported to hospital by ambulance before we were able to share our Thanksgiving dinner. It’s times like this that we remember every day our family is together is Thanksgiving and to be grateful for every small thing. And thankful for the big things, too. Such as EMT’s, hospitals, doctors, nurses and high tech tests and medicines. We hope, with God’s grace, to return home. Your words have given me the focus I’ve needed tonight.

  • Kathy Weill Lee

    I love love your article!!! Losses in 2012 occurred & I thought I might go “running through the streets”. Thanks to our loving creator God, I turned to knowing Him & drawing Him closer by reading the Bible, listening to some great preachers on TV, James & Betty Robson to name a few. No wacko !
    I was raised Catholic but never read a Bible or experienced a “personal relationship with God”.
    Today I thank our Lord for everyday “itty bitty” things.
    Help to find that list, the keys, the hair brush etc, & Yes I can breathe✝️✝️

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