A few weeks ago, friends and family threw us a baby shower for our first child. A guest shared a story there that changed the way I look at life, and I’ve been trying to hold on to this new perspective for as long as I can.
She told the story of the baby her daughter lost — it was her first child (a girl, just like mine). They spent 59 days and nights in the newborn intensive care unit (NICU) while people dropped off casseroles and walked their dog and colleagues filled in the blanks for them at the office. They were able to put everything else on hold to spend every moment of their daughter’s short life together.
While they were there, they watched sick babies die alone, babies whose parents were forced to make an impossible choice between being with their dying child or losing their jobs and their homes. These parents were choosing between expensive life-saving surgery or using the gas money it would take to make the long trip to put food on the table for their other children.
At the shower, I listened to her describe this experience with my jaw practically dropped on my paper plate of cupcake crumbs. It completely reframed my life. I decided to examine, first, why I had lost touch with what a gift this life is; and second, what I can do to get some of that wonder and gratitude back and share it with others.
I realized that I get so consumed by the obligations and responsibilities of adulthood sometimes that I can’t see all the beauty right in front of me on a mundane Tuesday afternoon. When I’m shuffling paperwork again, washing dishes again, making dinner again, facing a deadline again, driving to the gym again, it’s easy to feel like the ordinary stuff of everyday living is a burden.
We buy into the belief that the good stuff of life is somewhere over there, with piles of clutter and tasks keeping it just out of reach. It’s in these moments that we need to be shaken out of our self-centered melancholy. We need the scales to fall from our eyes; to have our faces turn towards the sun; to be amazed, surprised, humbled; to witness something greater, something that reminds us that life is more than paperwork, deadlines, taxes. That’s what this woman’s story did for me.
The next morning, I found myself lingering in bed, listening to my husband’s even breathing as he slept, my hands resting on my ever-growing belly as our daughter rubbed her eyes with tiny fists and kicked and spun for more space. I felt awe at the enoughness of it all. I was speechless in wonder at the miracle of these three lives.
All too often, it’s not a lack of the miraculous that makes our lives seem so heavy and meaningless, but a spiritual blindness — a mindset focused on what should be that ignores everything that already is.
C.S. Lewis calls this a form of pride — he says that pride is never satisfied with what is, and convinces us we need to have, be, and do more than we currently are. Having it all will never be good enough as long as someone else has more.
So how do we fight this internal battle? How do we live in the mundane with our eyes open to witness the miracles each day holds? Well, like most things, seeing rightly is a practice, and that practice will look different for each one of us.
Gratitude is an excellent place to start. A daily practice of jotting down or sharing out loud the large and small gifts of the day trains our brains to look for the sweet moments, small victories, and “just enoughs.” In my single days, I’d jot down each little gem in a notebook I kept on my nightstand. These days, they’re the last things my husband and I whisper to each other before falling asleep.
Being intentional with our words is a simple way to see more clearly, too. Instead of saying, “I should take the dog for a walk;” try, “I could take the dog for a walk.” Instead of, “I don’t want to go to work today;” try, “I choose to go to work today.” Swap “I get to go to the dentist” for the automatic “I have to go to the dentist.”
Having a dog to walk, a job that pays a living wage, and access to dental care are all privileges that are easy to take for granted. Changing our language around the ordinary privileges of this life can go a long way to transforming our attitude.
Stay near to the poor and suffering. It’s easier than ever to distance ourselves from real suffering and poverty, be it down the street or across oceans. We can write a check or set up automatic monthly donations and check the box of being charitable. Sure, writing a check is nice — important even — but what we miss out on is human connection, a glimpse of the sacred, a refresher course in wants vs. needs. When we walk toward the poor and suffering near us, we can see God’s fingerprints more clearly, pinpointing all the ways He’s providing for them — and for us.
Live more simply. As I was building our baby registry, my mom brought it to my attention that I had registered for both a bassinet and a pack-n-play. She questioned whether we really needed both, given that babies will sleep just about anywhere and that another piece of baby gear in our 1,200-square-feet of living space may be more hassle than it’s worth. That reality had never occurred to me as I checked off “must-have baby items” one by one on our registry. Everywhere we turn, we’re being sold something, and this culture of consumerism only echoes that nagging voice in our heads that life will really be good once we buy those new throw pillows, sign up for one more subscription box, or book that expensive trip.
Develop a practice of prayer. Prayer is one of those things that all too often feels like another obligation, and it’s easy to put off until I’m desperate for a little divine intervention. It’s easy to overcomplicate prayer and get tied up in doing it “right,” like all those rosaries we prayed in Catholic school while the teachers corrected our posture and hand position. In its simplest form, prayer is nothing more or less than a turn of our gaze toward the divine — it can be as basic as a deep breath or as simple as a smile at the first signs of spring. Anne Lamott boils it down to three essential prayers: help, thanks, wow. We are needy, grateful, and amazed — sometimes all at once.
Cultivate community. Making time to get together with friends and family is an easy way to remind ourselves of what really matters. It’s amazing how a girls’ night, a pedicure date with my mom, or Sunday dinner with my dad can transform my attitude. Stress melts away in the presence of loved ones and we can be present in a unique way to one another’s joys and struggles. Plus, there’s that whole “where two or more are gathered in my name, there am I with them” business that Jesus promised. There’s just something that happens when we’re gathered around a table, a Christmas tree, a card game, or a bonfire that we can’t get in isolation. Community drives out loneliness and the emptiness that comes with it — it revives our energy, refreshes our souls.
C.S. Lewis says we need to be reminded more than we need to be instructed, so I’m taking this as an opportunity to remember that a meaningful, abundant life is right in front of me. It’s easy to forget that I always have a choice: going to work is a choice; prayer is a choice; service is a choice; maintaining my physical and mental health is a choice. Whether I do or don’t do them is a decision I get to make, and both options have short-term and long-term consequences that get me closer to or further from the kind of person I want to be and the kind of life I want to live.
That’s the blessing and curse of being an adult. No one is out there to attend to what I do or don’t do. I’m in charge now, with the power to either change my circumstances or my response to the circumstances I can’t change.
If we want to grow in an abiding sense of peace and joy, if we want to retain an eye that’s quick to notice the good things in life and a heart that is content with the abundance already before me, it takes practice. Those things don’t come naturally — it’s the everyday work of building a good life.