By Owen Phelps, Ph.D.
Director, Yeshua Institute
This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it. Psalm 118:24
When each of my parents died, I had a choice to make. But when the news of their deaths came, what happened next didn’t seem like a choice at all.
Neither passing was a total surprise. Both were ill. Yet when death came it was like a punch to my heart.
People can hover on the brink of death for months, even years. We think we are ready for the ultimate transition. Then we learn – painfully -- that we’re not. The event is so final, the loss seemingly so complete. It’s a shock to our system.
One moment they are here. In the next they are gone. The suddenness and finality rattle us.
So choice is not the first thing that comes to mind when we lose a loved one. In fact, it takes a while to adjust to this new reality. But as we do, we begin to choose -- often without even being aware of the choice we’re making.
The choice – often unconscious -- is this: Do we dwell on the loss or do we dwell on the gift?
Young man’s life taken
A few weeks ago I joined countless others who mourned the sudden loss of a young man in a car accident. He was one of my grandson’s closest friends. His parents were close friends of one of my sons and his wife. He was a gifted athlete . We had sat with his parents and grandparents in the bleachers for several years while he and my grandson played together on the court.
Usually this young man was the high scorer. Only a couple of hours before his death he was the high scorer for his college team. He was so full of life ... and his life so full of promise.
And then he was gone.
As the news spread through his small hometown and across the campus where he played ball, thousands faced a choice they were probably not even aware of – at least not initially. Would they dwell on the loss of this young man or would they dwell on the gift of his life in theirs?
A shock and a choice
I don’t know what everybody did. But I do know what those closest to me and to the young man did. They dwelled on the loss. Dear God, what else could they do?
But then, subtly and slowly over the next few days, their focus started to switch. His parents are devout Christians and all around servant leaders in their community. (Indeed, the young man's high school coach actually called them that in the wake of the tragedy.) Despite their grief, they began to speak of the light he had been in their lives.
Through the terrible, devastating sense of loss they felt came the sense, just flicker at first, of blessing. They had been blessed – beyond words, beyond measure – by having been given this son and every single moment of his brief 21 years.
Through the heart-wrenching agony that covered their lives like a bitter winter shroud of snow emerged a little sprout of gratitude. They had begun, perhaps without even thinking about it, to make their choice.
They could not forget the loss. No matter how hard they prayed, they could not escape its tormenting hold on their broken hearts and churning guts. Nothing could turn back the clock. Nothing could bring him back. And yet, in the dark agony of all who loved and lost him there was a flicker of gratitude that he had been a part of their lives.
As the days pass, the choice will become more conscious. Those who loved the boy cannot help but think of him. The holidays that bring families together -- especially Thanksgiving and Christmas – will make his loss all the more apparent and painful. But as memories of him persist, those who loved him – still love him -- will begin to realize that they can make a choice about the meaning of those memories.
They can rise above their loss to become ever more aware of the gift they received in the time they were given with this young man. And as people of faith, they can also anticipate an eternal reunion someday. They have the firm hope that they will see him and hold him again. For these things they can be grateful.
In less intense moments, we have the clear choice to exercise and develop our sense of gratitude ... or not. One day a year Americans set aside to focus on being thankful. We celebrated it a week ago. It’s not nearly enough. Our hearts feel that. Our science empirically affirms it.
Some years ago a professor decided to test the power of gratitude to shape our lives. He came up with a simple experiment. He would gather some students and test them regarding a variety of habits and outlooks they had. Then he would separate them into two groups as much alike as possible.
One group was assigned the task of taking 20 minutes a week to sit down and make a list of things for which they were grateful. The other group, the “control group,” didn’t have to do anything but show up at the end of the experiment.
When that time came, he brought back both groups of students and ran a series of tests on them. He found that the group which had kept a weekly “gratitude jounal” were happier and healthier than the group that hadn’t. It was a clear demonstration of the wisdom in that old adage, “Count your blessings.”
Since then this same test and countless variations of it have been administered with the same results. When we take time – even a little time – to be grateful, our lives are better. Our bodies and minds are healthier. And generally speaking, the more we practice gratitude, the more we thrive both mentally and physically.
In a phrase, gratitude is good medicine.
You won’t find gratitude listed among the three great virtues in the Bible. It’s not one of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. And yet, it is the very foundation for how we respond to the realization that all of creation is a gift – beginning, indeed, with our own existence.
Each breath we take – and each breath our loved ones take – is God breathing life into us. Each breath, our own or others’, is a gift. We should take nothing for granted.
Paul reminds of us of the benefits of this perspective when he writes: “Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God. Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:6-7)
In my moments of deep thought, I reflect on the awesome gift of life and express my gratitude for it.
But even in fleeting moments, I’m grateful.
Living in the Midwest, as I do, with winter winds beginning to whip, I start each day gazing out the window to the harsh circumstances outside and say a heartfelt prayer of thanks to God for central heat and indoor plumbing. Surely their inventors reside close to the heavenly throne.
Be grateful ... for gifts large and small ... today and every day.