It’s been several months since I last posted. I really didn’t want to be that blogger–the one who writes for a few weeks or months and then gets bored or runs out of ideas and stops, leaving yet another dead website littering the internet. But sometimes life happens and interferes with plans and goals; in this case I had to take time off to have a baby. (Totally worth it.)
Christmas is already a couple months away, and I usually try not to share too much of my personal life here, but today I want to talk about how I spent my Christmas, not because that story is important, but because the way we tell our stories is so much more important than we realize.
I woke up on Christmas morning feeling really miserable. I just hurt. It was a week after I had my baby, and I thought I would feel better soon, but I just kept hurting. I ended up spending most of the day laying on the sofa groaning and feeling sad that I was ruining my husband’s Christmas. Finally that evening I started running a fever and we ended the day by going to the emergency room where I was diagnosed with a postpartum infection and given antibiotics.
As I was laying around in the hospital having antibiotics pumped into my veins, I realized that there are two different ways to tell this story–and just about any other story in our lives–and the version we choose has a profound effect on who we are and how happy we are.
Versions of our story
So here’s the two versions of the story of my Christmas.
One version of the story goes like this:
My Christmas was totally ruined! I didn’t get to eat dinner with my friends like I was supposed to. I felt awful, and to top it off, I had to spend half the night in the emergency room. And half of that time was spent waiting around for people to show up, for tests to be done, or for medicines to be delivered. I didn’t even get to open any presents! Such a lousy Christmas.
And then there’s the other version:
Despite the fact that I got an infection of a sort that people used to die from, I got to spend Christmas with my caring husband and my healthy, adorable, good-tempered newborn. Not just one but two kind families agreed to take care of our toddler while we dealt with my illness. And we got to drive our own car to a well-staffed, well-equipped hospital within a few minutes of our home, where trained professionals (who were polite and cheerful despite having to work on Christmas) diagnosed and quickly treated my condition with medications that didn’t even exist a century ago. As a result I recovered quickly. We opened our Christmas presents the next day, and no one really minded waiting the extra day.
So what is the difference between these two stories? They’re both true. They both tell a factual story of how I spent my Christmas. Both take about the same amount of effort to tell. But the first story focuses on the negative while the second recognizes all the wonderful things that happened that day.
Every day things happen that we can’t control. People get sick, things break, plans fall through. Sometimes life is genuinely hard. I really wouldn’t care to repeat the experience of spending Christmas in the emergency room. But even if we can’t control the situation, we do have a choice about how we tell the story, both to ourselves, and to others.
We hear about being positive so much it can get old after awhile. It tends to sound like an invitation to self deception. But focusing on the positive doesn’t mean ignoring the negative. It just means looking at the whole picture. Yes, your car is broken and you can’t get to work, and yes, this is a major difficulty that you can’t ignore. But the fact that you had a car to begin with is such an incredible thing from a historical perspective that it does deserve some appreciation. Then there’s the fact that you have a job, that you live in a place where there are roads to drive your car on, and that you have the freedom to drive your car to your workplace; these are things which employed Americans take for granted every day, but so many people around the world don’t have these blessings.
Of course, as humans we do have a cognitive bias towards anomalies, especially negative ones. You will survive better in the savannah if the most salient thing is not the way the wind ripples through the golden grasses under the glowing sun, but the lion that’s about to eat you.
In the jungle, noticing the negative things will save your life, but in a world where most anomalies are not life-threatening, noticing only those things will make you waste emotional energy, and, if you aren’t careful, your whole life.
Remembering to tell the story of our lives positively changes our perspective on everything. So many of our inconveniences are actually just the backside of blessings. Maybe your house doesn’t have enough storage space. I can sympathize. It’s definitely a trial. But the fact that you have insufficient storage space presupposes that you have lots of belongings that are worth keeping–definitely a good thing. You could say that first world problems are the jagged edges of our blessings.
The Tapestry of Life
We’ve probably all heard life referred to as a tapestry whose pattern we will see only when we die. Here on Earth we only see the backside, and it doesn’t make much sense. But after we die we’ll see the beautiful pattern God has drawn with the various threads of our lives. It’s a nice metaphor, if a little overused.
But I think that on another level, we can see the front of our tapestry, if we take the effort. The car breaking down, the lack of storage space–these are the loose ends on the back of the tapestry. They don’t look nice, but who says we have to live on the backside of our lives all the time? Occasionally we should take a moment to look around at the front of our lives and see all the beautiful colors and patterns there.
It’s not a denial of reality–we know we have problems and if we try to ignore them, they will certainly remind us of their presence–but we have a choice: we can live our lives in a constant state of resentful irritation at our difficulties, or we can live in a permanent state of awed gratitude for what we have been given. I don’t know about you, but I think that awed gratitude sounds more pleasant.