A lot of things went very astonishingly wrong on my flight back from Dallas on Friday.
Already sick with a cold, I sprinted as the last person onto the flight out of Dallas because I missed the rental car shuttle bus. After getting delayed in Chicago, I boarded a flight with broken air conditioning, which got diverted to JFK instead of Albany. After an hour in JFK, we learned Albany wasn’t cooperating and the airline chartered a bus for us from New York City to Albany. After a slightly uncomfortable ride due to the army ranger neighbor’s gun that poked me in the thigh most of the way, another sprint to catch the bus to the economy lot, and half an hour freeing my car from its icy prison, I thought I was finally home free till I ran over a gas can someone left on the middle of the highway. With it wedged under my bumper I had to lay in the slush on the side of the highway to free the can from the home in made in the underside of my vehicle…and once I finally arrived home at 1 AM, nine hours after my scheduled flight was supposed to land, I had to shovel out the nice present the village snow plow had left blocking my driveway so I could finally pull in for the night.
Strictly speaking, Friday wasn’t the worst day of travel I’ve ever had. That title probably belongs the day three canceled flights stranded me in Charlotte, or the time I got food poisoning right before an overnight flight to Istanbul. But without question, Friday was the day most prone to diverse misfortune – which is its own kind of misery. Rolling around in salty, slushy highway runoff at 12:30 AM after sixteen hours of travel had not been my idea of a good time. That sheer absurdity, I thought, after so many things had gone wrong, had to make it “the worst” in its own way. After all, I thought as I weaved my way home through icy, snowy roads, could it really have gone more dramatically wrong?
Then, I thought – I guess it could have.
I’d been afraid I’d have to find a shovel to free my car from its icy prison; mercifully, there wasn’t enough snow on the ground to necessitate such a rescue. That was something to be grateful for! Plus, there was the fact that my car was still running – the rogue gas can hadn’t seemed to damage anything vital, and I had been able to free it instead of needing to call for help. I guess, looked at that way, it was one of the better things I could have run over. Which made me realize that, though I had run over a gas can, I myself had decidedly not been run over when I crawled under my car on the side of the highway. Getting run over by a semi certainly would have qualified as a “worse” day of travel than my Friday experience.
Though it started a little silly, my mind that had meticulously recounted the day to think of every single thing that had gone wrong started to shift gears. Instead, I was finding myself thinking of every single thing I was grateful for. Completely in spite of myself, I found myself praying and thanking God for every thing I could think of that hadn’t gone wrong. God, thank you it stopped snowing. Thank you I made it home tonight instead of getting stuck in Chicago. Thank you I’m almost over my sickness so I had the strength to shovel. Thank you there was a spot to pull over right after I hit the gas can. Thank you for stranding me in New York City with fun people and positive attitudes. It wasn’t some impressive mental shift on my part, who had been Captain Grumpy for the past several hours, nor did it take any discipline or effort to come up with things; completely devoid of my own efforts, obvious things to be grateful for were just flowing to mind.
Absolutely, a lot had gone wrong. But a lot could have gone way more wrong. And a lot had gone right – up to the point of just barely making a flight, a bus, and getting home the day I left. And a funny thing happened the more things I found to be grateful for – the more my tension relaxed, my face softened, and the day didn’t seem so bad after all.
There’s a man I see at the gym most times I go, always in a positive mood. Any time I ask, he’s doing well, notes several things he’s thankful for, and chalks his life outlook up to gratitude. “I always say I have an ‘attitude of gratitude,’” he says with a smile.
I find it a little cheesy, and a little obvious. Of course, gratitude is the way to go – I know that! I’m a pastor. It says to be thankful all over the Bible. The only problem is too often, I don’t actually do it. When the universe seems to conspire against me getting home I don’t naturally choose gratitude; when I miss home and friends I don’t naturally choose gratitude; when my work doesn’t feel like it’s going well or when it’s negative seven degrees or I’m sick, I don’t naturally choose gratitude. When hard things happen I become a far better expert at identifying the negatives than the positives.
But my gym friend’s outlook isn’t giddy optimism, and neither was the wave of thankfulness that hit me on my frigid, ill-fortuned drive home. I was fully aware a lot of things had gone wrong, and fully would have preferred to have gotten home at 5 PM, not 1 AM. But I also was fully aware that there were many little provisions throughout the day, and I was honestly grateful for what I had instead.
I immediately have converted back to my natural ways; my first days home from Texas, it’s a stark contrast between being surrounded by good old seminary friends and being alone in my house. It’s easy for me to be filled with gratitude when I’m baptizing someone, welcoming new members, and preaching sermons I feel great about; it’s not as easy when the church feels emptier with so many people snowed in by the frozen tundra, when I’m preaching sermons I don’t feel as confident in, when I acutely feel just how far away I am from my fiancée, family and friends. It immediately can become easy again to count my misfortunes instead of my blessings. Gratitude, by no means, is an easy discipline. Some lessons, I suppose, need to be learned time and time again, and it is not something I’m capable of on my own; there’s a reason the Bible ties our thankfulness to Jesus’ presence in our hearts.
But something happened on that drive home Friday night I hope dearly to hang on to. Without trying, I naturally had found myself grateful, when I had been trying to pinpoint why my day was the worst ever. I went to bed that night easy and content, sleeping soundly, instead of wound up and stressed. For whatever reason, instead of finding all the miseries I could name, I found every thing I was grateful for, and life seemed so much more enjoyable, and I probably became a much more bearable person. Cheesy as my gym friend had sounded, I realized then I really craved the same “attitude of gratitude.”
I’m not sure how to keep maintaining that attitude, but man, is it going to be worthwhile to try to figure it out.
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