It should be obvious by now to anyone who reads this column regularly that I am a deeply flawed fellow. That’s a confession akin to saying “I’m alive” or “I’m a carbon-based life form”. How might Descartes put it? I am alive, therefore I sin. Those who live with me—my wife, the amigos, the cat, the dog—apprehend this all too well, as they must if they are to adapt to life with a man who eats too much, is short-tempered and acid-tongued under duress, often lazy, and snores. Those of you who don’t know me must surely be thinking to yourself, to borrow from Rosanne Rosanna-Danna, “Mr. Swensen, you sound like a real attractive guy!”
Given my status as one of the world’s most despicable guys, I am amazed, when I allow myself the time and space and focus to be amazed, at the myriad blessings God has seen fit to grant me. It takes a bit of discipline and concentration to spot these blessings on some days. You know the kind of days I’m talking about: days when you’ve been stuck in traffic, doubling your normal hour long commute; days when you’ve fielded at work numerous complaints which you find ridiculous, unfounded, or whose source is out of your control; days when within seconds of entering your home you’re assaulted by the sound of petty, juvenile bickering or a disrespectful demand emanating from an eight year old potential tyrant, or when you’re so tired upon your arrival that all you want to do is shovel some calories down your maw and crawl into bed, but there is a basketball practice or piano lesson to cart someone to, homework to help with, baths to administer, a tantrum or two to negotiate effectively, a crucial discussion to engage in with your longsuffering partner (aka “your wife”). My knee-jerk reaction is to wonder, sometimes aloud and with an exasperated or ticked-off or self-righteous tone (on a particularly nasty day I might manage the trifecta and achieve all three at once), “what have I done to deserve this?!?”
It’s always the right question, but usually rendered with the wrong intent. Instead of asking it angrily, I ought to be doing so—daily—with thanksgiving and humility: “What have I done to deserve this (thank you, Lord!)?!?”
Why do I have steady and interesting employment with talented colleagues? Why does my wife put up with me, typically with a smile on her face, and how have we weathered so many storms together and had so much fun in the process? I have food and heat and shelter, my children are healthy and are the beneficiaries of dedicated teachers who care about their welfare and progress; why are we permitted to live in this humble town with its surplus of resources and history and kind neighbors? And there’s the so-called “small” stuff to be thankful for: the way Daniel and Luke curl up side-by-side in Daniel’s bed on a winter, weekend night when they’re allowed to sleep together; the joy, excitement, and simplicity contained in Abby’s various journal entries (“Today was AWESOME! I did really well on my book project, got to play ‘Animal Jam’ on the computer after school. Then I learned a little about Norway, where dad’s family came from, and we even ordered PIZZA FOR SUPPER!!”); watching Krista teach our little autistic guy how to play “Jingle Bells” on the piano or how to multiply three digit numbers; sledding down Memorial Hill on a windless, snowy, 28 degree, moonlit evening. I could go on and on, but I have a word count limit.
These experiential grace notes are delivered most often by members of my family, issuing forth in unexpected forms and moments, simultaneously commonplace and spectacular. Indeed, the mere existence of my offspring and spouse, and their enthusiasm for accompanying me for a brief while on this earthly journey, is miraculous in itself. It is a profound gift to me, a truth I express poorly and not nearly often enough. Marilynne Robinson’s incomparable epistolary novel, “Gilead”, expresses this sentiment poignantly in a brief passage written by the aging preacher-protagonist to his young son:
“I’m writing this in part to tell you that if you ever wonder what you’ve done in your life, and everyone does wonder sooner or later, you have been God’s grace to me, a miracle, something more than a miracle. You may not remember me very well at all, and it may seem to you to be no great thing to have been the good child of an old man in a shabby little town you will no doubt leave behind. If only I had the words to tell you.”
Timothy Swenson is the author of the weekly column series Virtue and Mischief that is published every Tuesday in The Daily Advocate. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Viewpoints expressed in these opinion pieces are the work of the author. The Daily Advocate does not endorse these viewpoints or the independent activities of the author.