There’s a moment when, if I’m standing on a beach and a wave is rushing up to greet my ankles and I brace myself for it, that something changes. Suddenly the wave seems to pause, falter, and an under-current wave briefly reveals its watery seams and pulls that first rush of water back. My ankles remain dry: currents are complex and the tide is going out. The wave I thought would rush all the way to me—past me!—turns out to be a mini wave. It bows out and returns to the watery deep.
I felt like that wave recently: so sure of what I was going to say, so sure of the words coming out my mouth – and then suddenly I faltered and pulled back. I was telling a story – an everyday story about my husband being a hero in the middle of a house remodel muddle, when I remembered who was listening: a friend who had suddenly lost her husband not too long ago. Would my story—prominently featuring my very-much-alive spouse—hurt to hear? Would it rub sea-salt in the wounds of her loss? Would it be gloating over what I have when she would so dearly love to have the same?
I’ve wondered this more and more of late as women tell their stories of infant and pregnancy loss, while I post pictures of my children wearing silly dress-up costumes. Someone shares about the anniversary of losing a parent, and I wonder how the casual stories of the good advice my mom gave me last week might have landed. I’m asked how things are going at home, and while the truth is that my day today is filled with the (admittedly stressful) details of navigating contractors and budgets; I pull back before answering because I know housing insecurity is a real thing, and didn’t we just pray in our small group for the budget crisis that family nearby is in?
Of course I’ve been on the receiving end of someone else’s waves of privilege, too: desperately wanting the marriage, the house, the opportunity, the sleeping baby, and the passport privileges of someone else’s life. This last weekend I taught the tenth commandment to a group of 5th and 6th graders, and extended all ten fingers with palms raised up as I explained: “the tenth commandment is do not covet, which means jealously wanting something someone else has… just like these grabby hands.” The 11-year olds all nodded solemnly around the room. Adultery and murder don’t feel like real temptations right now, but they’ve all wanted the game, the life, the perks of someone else. We all have hearts with grabby hands.
My widowed friend, sensing me pull back mid story, noticed my pause and spoke right into the moment. “Oh, I love it when people tell stories about loving their husbands,” she said. “It makes me happy to remember the happiest times with my Tom.” What was hard, she explained, was when people complained or just plain took their husbands for granted. “It makes me want to take them by the shoulders and remind them to appreciate what they have right now, because you never know when it will be gone.” She was right: when reminded of things I have when others have not: gratitude is what’s called for. Not guilt. Nor silence, which sometimes just magnifies the echo in the chasm between the have I know I have, and the have-not she knows is hers.
“Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us everything for our enjoyment,” writes Paul to young Timothy (1 Tim 6:17). There are many ways of being rich, I’m reminded. Rich in opportunities. Rich in relationships. Rich in talents. We are rich in so many ways we might not even notice until we start to listen to the stories of those who are in pain over the lack and loss of these things.
When I have what others may want, I’m called to gratitude rather than guilt. I’m called to gratitude and humility – acknowledging the gift in what I have – for to say nothing at all comes across as entitlement and stings with privilege. Saying “I’m grateful to be able to have children,” acknowledges the person grieving infertility in a way that my awkward, guilty silence does not. Catching myself mid-complaint over the minutiae of an overloaded calendar and letting my retired, empty-nester friend reminds me that this over-full life represents an abundance of gifts.
In the months after I’ve said “I’m sorry for your loss,” I’m reminded to say “I’m thankful.” There will come a day when there’s no more loss or crying or sadness; a day when no-one will want for anything… but until that day, we’re learning to give thanks for the good we have together.