Somewhere in my childhood, I got the notion that it was OK to complain. Looking back, I’m amazed at how many years I let the blessings of my life go unnoticed. I now see gratitude as 100% choice. It has nothing to do with my external situation. But it wasn’t easy learning this lesson.
My wife and I were mission workers in the Philippines. One day we went to a poverty-stricken village where people lived on a garbage dump, making their homes out of scrap. We came across a woman who had just birthed a baby in the midst of that squalor. I gave her all the money I had left, some pocket change, and my wife gave her a pair of Levi’s and a Bible. The woman’s joy at our meager gifts was incredible.
That was a sobering incident, and I wish I could say it transformed me. But my life didn’t change much after that; I was just haunted for years by those scenes of poverty.
In 2008, I survived the market crash better than most, but in 2009 our beautiful home was taken from us through the shady manipulations of a bank. I was angry to the point of getting physically ill. I had no sense of gratitude for anything, and I was filled with a growing bitterness that bordered on hate.
Then, an acquaintance who had lost everything in 2009 told me that she had never been happier. She had begun a simple discipline. Every day, she would not only list the things for which she was grateful, she would also speak them out loud.
With nothing to lose, I started my own list. Honestly, on the first day, I could only think of two things. First, I still had my wonderful wife in spite of losing just about everything else. Second, I still had respect from my children.
From there, slowly, my daily list began to grow, first with obvious things, then with small details I had too often overlooked. I even started timing myself to see how quickly I could bounce back after getting a disappointment. When I first started this new behavior it would take an average of two or three days before I could lift my head and start seeing the benefit of something gone terribly wrong.
That brought me to the loss of my home. I remembered something an old cowboy friend of mine told me, “Steve, never waste a good crisis; learn all you can from it.” Eventually, even though it was painful, I came to feel grateful for the theft of my home, because it has given me so much freedom and mobility.
Today, I’m able to spring back from disappointments more quickly than I ever imagined. One of my little jokes when people know my situation and wonder how I can be joyful, is this: “The bank that burned me on my home drop kicked me through the goal posts of Zen mastership!”
I am the main beneficiary of learning to choose gratitude, but the benefits spill over to everyone around me. No one wants to hang around with someone who is ungrateful. It’s a bummer!
When I show gratitude, it’s like a magnet that draws healthy people to me. It’s irresistible. Being grateful brings me into the moment, the “now.” The past is regret, the future is anxiety, but my “now,” my present, has become wonderful and I AM GRATEFUL.
Steve Nootenboom is an artist, filmmaker, and builder. He and his wife, Tanya, have been married 36 years and have four children and six grandchildren. Steve and Tanya have pioneered two churches and aided in mission efforts to China, the Philippines and Mexico. Steve still enjoys rock and ice climbing, sailing and hang gliding. The two of them are living a migratory lifestyle visiting their children and grandchildren. Check out Steve’s Facebook gallery page here.