When Giving Thanks Doesn’t Work

dark flower

My problem started last year on the day I moved into my current house. That’s not true, my problem didn’t actually start then, it’s just when it became very apparent. I had found the house online, and though I’d  been on a virtual walk-through, I wasn’t prepared to move into an empty house that day.

My heart sank as soon as I opened the door. I mean, the house was empty. I knew it would be, I just didn’t know what empty would feel like.

For perspective, most of the places we’re posted abroad come furnished and with at least some sort of welcome kit; dishes, towels and even some basic groceries in the fridge to tide you over until your own things arrive. Travel took us to furnished hotels, AirBnBs, and friends’ home. Not once in five years had I entered a completely empty room and expected to live there.

That first day, I bought the kids happy meals to have a “floor picnic” while we waited for friends to bring us a table and some beds to borrow. Judson spilled his milk and I realized I didn’t even have anything to clean it up with. I felt as helpless as the thin, greasy fast food napkins. I felt stupid for not having stopped at Target for a few necessities first. My heart sunk further and I second-guessed renting this place sight unseen and coming to it empty, rather than stay at a hotel for a few days while I filled it.

I thought, “I should be thankful, that will help these bad feelings go away.” Count your blessings, you know. Name them one by one. Name one thousand of them.

I was thankful for the house. Over the next few months I wrote here and posted plenty about how wonderful this neighborhood is and the kids’ schools and my awesome friends, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera (The King and I, anyone?). These were genuine expressions, to be sure, but I couldn’t get it to work.

I couldn’t get rid of that heart-sunk feeling. Though I couldn’t enunciate at the time, I was struggling with the stress of moving back to the States from overseas and setting up a new life here, grieving the loss of sweet community there, processing the hardships we had just come through, and striving to be a solid base for my kids who were going through all of this too.

But had you asked me then how I was doing, I would have told you how thankful I was. Yes, it’s frustrating to not have all my stuff (or any of it) (our worldly possessions were delivered in three shipments over the course of the first three months we moved in), but this is such a great area and we can go pick up anything we need from the store or, better yet, have it delivered.

If you asked me how our time in the Middle East was, I would have told you how thankful I was for every thing that was a challenge. Yes, it was hard to be a woman there, but I had it so much better as a Western, American woman than any other woman. Yes, it was hard to not be able to drive, but our drivers employed by the Embassy were wonderful and became family to us.

My gratitude was all true, but it wasn’t working for me.

Happiness was easy, but fleeting. I filled my house with furniture and decorated it.  I was thankful, my life was so good, but I wasn’t enjoying it as much as I thought I should be.

In the course of about a week, three different people in different conversations about this struggle told me in almost the exact same words, “You can’t thank away pain.”

Do you need to hear that again? Because apparently I did.

You can’t thank away pain.

You can wait for it to go away. That doesn’t always work, but time does heal some things.

Better yet, you can seek help for it. You have to identify what caused the pain and make necessary changes. Not all of us can do this on our own. I couldn’t.

Help can take many forms; Books, spiritual guidance, prayer, licensed counselors, groups, or even therapy pigs (I wish I was making this up). I used all of these (except the pig!).

Thankfulness wasn’t working because I was confusing identifying pain with complaining. I wanted to be thankful as opposed to complaining. I didn’t want to say anything was wrong with my life because I have so many wonderful people who make it beautiful.

But I wouldn’t walk around with a twisted ankle, refusing to seek medical attention, thankful that all the other parts of my body worked fine. Nobody at a medical facility would think I was just complaining if I came to them with an infected wound. Treating my mental and spiritual health as important as my physical health started me on the path towards true healing. Identifying pain isn’t complaining.

I was being thankful for all the things, and though thankfulness is good for many things, it wasn’t the remedy I needed.

I’m thankful to have learned this. I’m thankful to be learning about other actions that help with pain, like lamenting, grieving, mourning, and releasing, and that these are among the “all things” I can do through Christ who gives me strength. (Phil 4:13)

It takes as much grace to say, “this is hard/painful/unbearable,” as it does to name what is beautiful and precious (because some things are all of these).

The God who pulls us out of our pits does not despise us for our cries for help, and for this, I am thankful.