Gratitude in the Lean Times

Gratitude in the Lean Times

There is a reason we say grace before the meal, not after.
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Famed NBA athlete Scottie Pippen had a poor childhood, growing up in a small house without a lot of extras. But from 1999 through 2002, he was earning nearly $15 million a year, and owned a 74-foot yacht and a $100,000 Mercedes. But every time Pippen played a game in Portland's Rose Garden, he jealously contemplated billionaire Paul Allen sitting at courtside. Allen, cofounder of Microsoft and owner of both the Trail Blazers and the Seattle Seahawks, was worth $40 billion. And Pippen longed to have even one of those billions. Just one!

"What does he have?" Pippen asked himself. "Forty billion? How can I make just one billion? I just want one of them! What do I need to do?" (, "When $15 million a year is not enough").

And maybe right now you're thinking you'd be happy with just one of Pippen's $14 million. Just one, right?

What's wrong here is that our expectations have been erroneously wired. We have come to expect that because we are all created equal, we should all get equal blessings, benefits, and rewards. The reality is that while we may all have equal spiritual and legal footing, none of us face identical, equal circumstances. As Jesus noted, God makes the sun shine on both the evil and the good, and he sends the rain to both the just and the unjust (Matt. 5:45). We should expect circumstances to dictate only one thing: that they happened. How we handle them and interpret them is entirely our own choice.

Images of Perfection
Our expectations are also set unrealistically high because we are too often romantics at heart. When we marry, we bring to the wedding so many idealistic, Hollywood-fueled expectations of the perfect marriage. And then we succumb to bitterness and ungratefulness when our spouse turns out to be nothing like the silver-screen sweetheart we hoped we'd married. We take new jobs, telling ourselves this job will be better than the last, and when it fails to meet our idealized expectations, we disengage. We start a new health program and at the first sign of failure, we toss the yogurt and tofu in the garbage bin.

We all have images in our hearts and minds of how life ought to be. Sometimes they're fueled by media imagery, but they also arise from the "halo effect" we ascribe to false memories of golden days gone by. Not only does modern life with its pressures not measure up to the golden ideal of life decades ago, even life back then didn't measure up to our reminiscences. We remember the "good parts," forget the bad, and elevate the false memories of the past to an impossible-to-attain ideal.

We need to recalibrate our expectations as we understand that the present will never live up to our memories of the past and the future will never measure up to the present. Instead, we ought to determine that we, ourselves, are equal to the demands of today. We need to till the soil of the present with the plow at hand right now, and not look back (Luke 9:61-62).

"Missing Tile" Syndrome
One sure way to sabotage gratitude and happiness is to fixate on one flaw to the exclusion of all that is good, like obsessing so heavily over a missing ceiling tile that we hate an entire house. It deserves to be said: this is childish thinking. I know, because I never encountered this kind of thought until I became a father. (Then I recognized it in myself.)

One day I took my children to a park. After several hours of playing and running around, they finally admitted to hunger. They'd been good kids, so I rewarded them with a trip to a burger joint with an indoor playground, followed by more hours of burger-fueled fun and frivolity.

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