“Alright Josh, your turn. What are you thankful for this year?”
Half embarrassed, and the other half resentful that we did this year after year at our family Thanksgiving meal, a young me would muster up something to say as not to feel completely idiotic while all eyes glared awaiting my response. To the perceived chagrin of the adults in the room, something along the lines of, “I’m thankful for my new Super Nintendo!” would inevitably burst out of my mouth.
“Why did we have to do this?” I thought. It was so awkward as everyone anxiously awaited their turn silently hoping they would not completely humiliate themselves in front of the other family members whom they only saw twice a year. Maybe it was actually that imposed nervousness my dad longed for as he did seem to enjoy inciting low-level embarrassment. After all, this is the same guy that would point a giant 90’s camcorder in the face of unsuspecting family members (I would call them victims) at birthday parties and say, “Hey, tell us your name!” followed by, “Well, how old are you?” then followed by, “Now tell us how much you weigh!” with a slightly evil chuckle awaiting the squirming of those in the lens of the camera. This happened. And we have the technicolor VHS tapes to prove it.
However, my father may be many things, but disingenuous, he is not. He says what he thinks (often without filter), and he means what he says. I think he really desired to foster a spirit of gratefulness at those big yearly get-togethers.
One thing I remember from back in the day is that few ever verbalized gratitude for the more negative things in life. I mean, it goes without saying, right? You and I are more prone to thank God for a good marriage than for a relationship on the rocks. We will usually express gratitude for healthy children, but we detest sickness and disease. “I got a promotion!” sounds a little better than, “I lost my job.” We are quick show off our new car on social media, but we are slow to post about our sometimes-reliable beater. Really, it’s natural. People do not typically enjoy hard times. I know I don’t. We would mostly just rather not. And if we do find ourselves in a sticky situation, we prefer to get out of it as quickly as possible and not look back.
“Time heals wounds” we hear the more comforting sort say. Another thing I think time tends to do is grant previously unrealized perspective. The further we are removed from a difficult time, the more open we are to the idea that maybe, just maybe, that bad thing or experience was actually good, but in disguise. This is why we needn’t be afraid of asking the question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” or even a more disconcerting, “If God is so good, why then does He allow bad things to happen?”
The first question can be reasonably satisfied by asking a few more. Question one, what makes us so certain we fall in the good category anyway? I feel it’s a fair question and one we should not answer too quickly else we become like the Pharisee in Luke 18:10-14 (an insightful read by the way). Do we believe we are good simply because we don’t lie, cheat, steal, gossip, or covet? I’m not certain that this is solid criteria, and also, I think we do a lot more of these things than we give ourselves credit for. So there’s that.
Question two, even if we might be considered good, why shouldn’t bad things happen us? Are we above the trials of life and existence? To me, it is not evident that anything in life grants us immunity from negative experience. Not money. Not employment. Not status in our communities. Not family size. Not even a relationship with God. Certainly, these can (and often do) provide some level of insulation from hardships, but make no mistake, life can take a turn for the worse in an instant, as it often does. Imagine you hear a knock on the door in the evening just after supper. Two police officers greet you with, “Pardon us, but there’s been a terrible accident. We need you to come with us.” In an instant, everything in life changes and your world is thrown into chaos. It is anxiety-inducing, no doubt. I admire the biblical Job’s attitude in Job 2:10, Shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil?
Question three, could God actually be using evil for a greater purpose? At best, that is a questionable question. But if you would, hear me out anyway. Have you ever looked back in your life at something terrible that occurred years ago and later observed something good coming out of it? Me too. We rarely catch it in the moment because of the panic, but much later on, we often gain a vantage point we did not possess before.
Some time ago, my wife and I could not understand why God would allow years-long stretches of infertility interrupted only by painful miscarriages. It didn’t make any sense to us. There were many tears accompanied by much frustration and depression. We were both ministering in a church. We felt we were doing a lot of things right, yet we would often ask God, “What are we doing wrong?” Now though, years later, we are able to see a little more clearly. Among many other things, we feel now our marriage was, in fact, not ready for a child. It is quite possible if a child had come along, it would have finished off what little relationship we did possess at the time. Also now, the two small children we have are greatly appreciated and highly treasured. Sentimental middle-aged parents we are now, and we love it.
Please do not misunderstand. I’m not trying to make light of what you may have been through. I do not even pretend to understand. The truth is, it does seem that some individuals inherit awfully terrible lots in life, while others seem to have an easy go of things. Some must scratch and claw for every inch ahead, while others appear to coast through life mile after mile. It truly does seem unfair. And while equity and equality are certainly worth talking about, the point here is not that. Instead, it is that, while we are unable to control the negative which forces its way into our lives, we are able to control how (to an extent) we are affected by it.
Consider the two characters in the Lion King, Simba and Scar. Both are lions. Both have royal bloodlines. Both underwent adverse circumstances in life. Both experienced negative emotion associated directly with these circumstances. Both responded differently.
Simba, afraid for his life (and ashamed for what he was convinced he’d done), ran away from his responsibilities and assimilated with another group (Timon and Pumbaa). This was until a higher call of purpose and being was explored and accepted.
Scar, scorned for being biologically and hereditarily inferior to his more honorable and kingly brother, stayed in the camp, and resentfully existed as he continued to scheme against the power that was (Mufasa).
Both of these characters underwent negative experiences, but they chose very different paths.
My point is that, while negative experiences are inevitable, our responses to those experiences many times (if not always) are the deciding factors of the eventual outcome. And I’m not really talking about initial responses either. We should allow human beings (especially ourselves) to feel emotions and be human. Be slow to judge. Life, after all, can be messy.
But beyond the initial shock-and-awe phase of trauma, there lies three roads.
ONE – Simba, fearful and guilt-ridden, abandons his responsibilities and begins operating life in a carefree way with his irresponsible friends. His own immediate needs are met, and he picks up some skills along the way, but there is an absence of truly fulfilling purpose. Child-like naivety continues while the dark power he turns a blind eye to continues to gain strength. Because of this, those whom he loves suffer.
TWO – Scar grows bitter and embraces the darkness of jealousy which seats deep within his soul (this is where we find him). He maliciously plots to overthrow his ideal to rid the world of true goodness and is successful. He assumes power and rules hard his dystopian house and does not care that the world around him is going to hell, as he actually seems to enjoy it.
THREE – Simba becomes willing to accept the challenge of confronting the darkness of his past and fight for his rightful place in the great story. He gains an incredible amount of experience (in a short amount of time), while he also inspires hope in the pride as well as in the pride’s future. The movie ends positively but the risks of death, dismemberment, and shame are very real. To potentially become something greater, Simba must sacrifice what is, by all means, a good and comfortable.
This Thanksgiving, how are you responding to the negative experiences over the year? Are you a naive, and responsibility-avoidant Simba? Perhaps you possess the spirit of a resentful, passive-aggressive Scar? With any hope, you’ve accepted the “bad” that has been imposed on you and are willing to face it head-on, even at your peril.
The good thing about the bad is the bad highlights the good. Without darkness, there is no perception of light. Without sadness, there is no joy. Without adversity, there is no growth. Without having felt hatred, love is not nearly as valuable. Without risk of loss, there is no victory. Without the struggle of the ascent, there is no mountaintop experience. You might even say that in order to recognize and truly appreciate the positive in our lives, we need a reasonable dose of the negative.
So at the close of this crazy year, instead of solely scavenging for the positive for which you can be thankful (like we all are at this point), maybe take a good, long gander at the negativity. Reflect on it, take it all in and acknowledge it for what it is. Then, accept it. And with any luck (along with some emotional and spiritual insight) you can look at it squarely in the face, and say a genuine “thank you.”