Swimming in Gratitude
By: Erin Huber
I went to the YMCA this morning to swim my laps. As my body warmed up to the pool, I noticed my breathing. Breathe in to the right, head down and breathe out. Breathe in to the left, head down and breathe out. Approach the wall…flip…push off and corkscrew my body around.... breathing out through my nose the whole time.
Repetition, repetition, repetition. One stroke. Two strokes. Three strokes. Breathe. One stroke. Two strokes. Three strokes. Breathe. Again, again, again. One lap flows into another as my body and my breath settle into a rhythm of deep and easy breathing and fluid movement.
As I circled around, I remembered my start with flip turns and my mouth smiled. Every time I flipped around and pushed off the wall, the water flooded my nose. The chlorine burned. The water congested my sinuses, sometimes for days. Because of this, I quit flip turns for a while. They hurt! I decided to settle for touching the wall and turning around. It wasn’t as smooth, but flip turns were just too hard. A swim instructor last year told me that it would be much harder for me to keep up with some of the swimmers who had been swimming competitively since they were kids: “They have a muscle memory that non-swimmers just don’t have,” she said, trying to encourage me. I felt discouraged.
Two summers ago, I became a triathlete. My desire to go faster brought on the flip-turn-itch once again. Holding my breath for longer would improve my breathing in the slimy lake swims. The swims with no visibility, no wall to bounce off of and people swimming on top of each other like the fish you feed at the zoo.
So I tried again.
Like learning any new skill, it took me awhile! I learned that I HAD to push the air out of my nose—hard—while I was flipping underwater if I didn’t want to get a nose full of chlorine. Seems simple, but it didn’t feel simple at all. Sometimes I did it, and sometimes I forgot. It was frustrating. It was painful.
Having gratitude, to me, is like learning a new skill. Some people have personalities that are naturally inclined to be more “grateful.” Like swimmers who started flip-turning and butterflying in elementary school, some peoples’ brains are naturally wired to be thankful for their circumstances.
When you swim lap after lap after lap, your body and mind develops the habit of swimming. You adapt to your environment. I bet that grateful parents are more likely to raise grateful kids.
The other day, a man who was swimming in the lane next to me stopped me and asked, “Would you mind giving me a few pointers on flip turns? I’m new to swimming and I really want to start doing those.” I sort of laughed and replied that his request was ironic since I had just stopped sucking water up my nose about 6 months ago. With surprise he said, “No kidding!? I just figured you’ve been doing them forever! You look like a swimmer.” Wow! ME?! Well, I guess a grown up really can master a new skill. I may not have the “muscle memory” from childhood, but I have made my muscles remember by the time and energy—and suffering-- I have invested in the sport.
And this is what I think about gratitude. No matter if we see the glass half empty or half full, I believe we can train our minds to be grateful. This is not easy. It takes determination, discipline and consistency. I mean, let’s be honest, I have a way easier time complaining, stressing and being anxious, than I do focusing my mind on what is good.
In yoga class, my instructor likes to end the session by saying something pseudo spiritual and slightly cheesy. The other night she chanted, in her sultry yoga voice: “The light in me shows gratitude for the light in you.” Huh? Then I thought about it more. I began to realize how much of an edge we Jesus-followers should have in the gratitude stuff. Since we believe Jesus is “the Light of the world, and also that Jesus is God, and also that the Holy Spirit is God and lives inside of us…then that “light” inside of me that the yoga lady was talking about, well, that’s the God of the universe. If the light inside of me is the God of the universe, and that’s where my capacity for gratitude comes from then….I should be the most grateful person on the planet! And also, shouldn’t it be easier?!
When Jesus explains what it takes to follow Him, He basically says we need to believe: that He is in the Father and the Father is in Him. We need to believe that Jesus is God. We need to receive Him, accept Him, entrust ourselves and belong to Him. It really sounds pretty easy, and for some it is. Some people hear and they accept and they believe and they trust and it’s, as my 5-year-old says, “easy peasy, pumpkin squeezy.” But for some of us, it’s not. Accepting and receiving is HARD work. Receiving grace is hard. We would rather do it on our own and earn rewards for the things we have done. Trusting that Jesus did it completely for us and leaning back into his arms of rest and peace…that actually feels harder.
Isn’t gratitude really more about receiving and accepting than it is about doing anything? Isn’t it about noticing what is going on around us more than it is about creating something from scratch? Why, as human beings, are we more comfortable with “doing it ourselves” than we are with letting someone else do it for us? Why would we rather keep moving and doing and busy than pausing and slowing down and enjoying what’s right in front of us?
If you google “gratitude” or “benefits of gratitude,” you can find a million articles. I read some that were very good. Happierhuman.com did his research for his post “The 31 Benefits of Gratitude You Didn’t Know About: How Gratitude Can Change Your Life.” Studies show that a grateful person will be more optimistic, less materialistic, more spiritual, less self-centered and have more self-esteem. The writer of the blog writes…“Gratitude spontaneously gives rise to spiritual attribution, helping one feel closer to God or other religious entities. I am irreligious, and have found gratitude practices to make my spiritual position difficult – those moments when I feel intense gratitude make me want to believe in a benevolent God...” Even irreligious people have to TRY NOT TO believe in God when they practice gratitude. Amazing. When we become a new creation in Christ, the desire to give thanks is hardwired into us. We fight against our flesh and make way for the thank-filled muscle memory the Spirit imparts to us when we are willing to receive Him.’
I think this is the same tension we feel between grace and good works as we read God’s Word. Being a Christian is all about receiving God’s grace and love through His Son Jesus, but it’s also about “keeping in step with the Spirit” and allowing God’s fruit to show in our lives. Abiding in Christ is both receiving and doing. It is hard work to stay in union with our Creator when everything in this world and our sinful nature works to pull us away from Him.
Most days at the pool, my goal is to swim a mile. Most days at the pool, I don’t want to swim a mile. I cry and complain in my mind as I dip my big toe into the water. I know it is going to be hard, and I do it because of the rewards I know it will bring later. We walk through seasons of intense pain and suffering in this life. Tears and grief are our closest companions, and gratitude in those times is the hardest it’s ever been. Jesus endured the cross because of the goal set before Him. The goal of Heaven, being with His Father, bringing us back to God, and the promise of Joy for enduring. Even Jesus (fully God) asked God to take away the road he had to endure (fully man).
For the joy set before us, we have the goal of remaining in gratitude. Not because we are grateful for the emotional and physical scrapes and bruises and amputations, but for what God is doing in and through us because of the suffering we endure. There is purpose to it. We do not see what is happening, and we are not grateful for the anguish in the moment, but when we look back later, when we remember how God sustained us through those times….we are grateful. When we remember that God is good, and he can be trusted during those times, we can give thanks.
So, to be grateful, we must take the time to notice those gifts God has given us: the relationships, the memories, the peace in suffering, the joy of the slow, small, ordinary moments. All of it must come into our minds, and we must make a practice of focusing on these things.
Faithfully. Consistently. Daily.
Studies show that keeping a gratitude journal, and writing in it for just five minutes a day can drastically improve your life. Putting down our phones, looking our friends and family in the eye and savoring the moment we’re in right now will produce eternal rewards. We focus both on the here-and now and the long game. It’s hard work and it’s easy. The more we work at accepting good gifts, being thankful for them, and expressing that thanks verbally to God and to others, the easier it gets.