…Be satisfied with what you have. For God has said, “I will never fail you. I will never abandon you.” -Hebrews 13:5 NLT
When our daughter was five we took her to see the movie “Epic,” an animated flick about tiny people who live in the forest and travel by songbird and make clothes out of flower petals. It was the first time she really got excited in advance about a movie. In the days leading up to the film’s release, she asked us often to show her the trailer and even started a countdown on the family calendar. We talked about it ALL THE TIME, negotiated behavior with it, reminded her of it when she didn’t want to help with a chore or get up for school. When the day finally arrived, we had lunch at her favorite restaurant, where I snapped one of my all-time favorite pictures of my husband and daughter, cheek to cheek, cheesing over their cheesy fries. We stopped in front of the “Epic” poster for another pic, and then sat in our favorite seats in the theater and watched the long-anticipated movie, which we all loved. But the second the credits started rolling, my daughter’s joy and excitement over the movie vanished. She refused to get out of her seat, and then did get out of her seat, only to sit on the steps so that people exiting from the rows above us had to step over or around her. She ignored the three chances we gave her to get up and leave with us, and when I hoisted her into my arms as a last resort she began to kick and scream and thrash. The day we had been counting down to with so much anticipation ended with anguish, tears, and the rendering of consequences, not to mention parental bewilderment. How did this happen? What went wrong?
Jen Hatmaker calls this behavior “Big Day Sabotage” in an essay about how her kids dissolve into major meltdowns on Christmas Day. She addresses the very specific reasons for her own kids’ (over)reactions: ALL emotions are big on Big Days, Big Days have no routine, Big Days have to end, to name a few. But the one that really got my attention, the one that feels so familiar in my own life, is this: “[Jen’s daughter] places her own unreasonable expectations on Big Days. She imagines a narrative so impossible, so idealistic, so over-the-top, every normal detour is devastating. Her desire to craft the Most Perfect Day Ever reaches a fever pitch, and with the slightest wobble to the plan, she comes unraveled. She wants to control the outcome all the way to perfection, but that doesn’t exist.” It’s probably safe to say we have all witnessed this behavior at some time, on some level. Maybe it’s your own kid, or a kid in your extended family. Maybe it’s your spouse or your sister or your dad (because no way is this behavior limited to children). Maybe it’s you.
There is a lot of pressure on all of us to make certain days HUGE and SIGNIFICANT and PICTURE-FREAKING-PERFECT. Holidays and birthdays and anniversaries have been Norman Rockwelled and Hallmarked and Pinterested into something we start trying to craft weeks and months in advance. You can’t just be pregnant and have a baby anymore, you have to throw three kinds of showers, host a gender reveal party, and schedule a series of portrait sessions with a professional photographer. Ditto engagements, weddings, graduations. Expectations–our own, and those of friends and family members–may encourage a little competitive creativity, but they also foster the kind of anxiety that breeds “Big Day Sabotage.” Will all due respect to Jen Hatmaker, I’ve decided that the reason for this behavior in my own family has to do with expectations. There are simply too many of them, and most of them are too high to ever be reached, and at the end of a day of unmet or deflated expectations, difficult emotions are inevitable, and we are left feeling deep discontent.
There is no way we can be content with any day, especially a Big Day, when our expectations are over-inflated–and they usually are. We put all of our thought and energy and attention into preparing for an event or a holiday, and we forget that our normal, day-to-day existence is already pretty amazing. When we forget to be thankful for a random, uneventful Wednesday, we tend to forget to be thankful, period. It’s entirely possible to be happy about something that’s happening, but not satisfied with it, thus eliminating the possibility for true contentment. If, at the end of a day spent warm and safe and well fed, in the company of people you love, you utter the words, “I just wish…” followed by some moment or event or picture-perfect memory you were hoping to capture, you have a contentment problem. I just wish I had gotten that one thing I asked for. I just wish we had watched ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ on Christmas Eve. I just wish we had gone ice-skating. I just wish we had gotten to visit with everyone longer. I just wish so-and-so had agreed to come. I just wish the kids’ outfits had matched when we took that group picture.
I’m guilty, but I’m learning that the antidote to this brand of dissatisfaction is the phrase “I’m so thankful….” I’m so thankful we all got to be together. I’m so thankful we are all healthy. I’m so thankful we were able to provide these luxuries for our kids and our family. It works year round, too, and on a much more existential scale: I’m so thankful we can stay in touch with friends and family who live far away through smartphones and social media. I’m so thankful we have such good friends. I’m so thankful we have dependable cars. I’m so thankful we don’t live in a war zone. I’m so thankful we can go to church and worship freely. I’m so thankful we have reliable healthcare. I’m so thankful we have jobs. I’m so thankful we can afford to buy groceries and send our kids to good schools. It’s so simple, this small expression of gratitude, but what if contentment is really that easy? What if the difference in satisfaction and discontent is just word choice?
We 21st century humans are always trying to improve upon the last version, the previous model. We place that same pressure of MORE and BETTER on our relationships, our family experiences, our holiday celebrations. I just wish, we say. If only. Why didn’t we….It’s a hard path to walk, this road of perpetual dissatisfaction. It cheapens our claims of joy and happiness, and it robs us of contentment. It often ruins the very thing we think we most want. When you are already thinking about what will make next Christmas better, or so focused on carrying out a tradition, or spending all your time making sure you have taken the perfect photos, you have already wagered the joy promised to you in the present. When you’re trying too hard, holding too tight, and caring too much how this Christmas, or this Easter, or this random Thursday night family dinner, will end, you are throwing away your chance at contentment. It doesn’t matter how much love you have for these friends, this family, gathered around you–unless you choose to be joyful and satisfied, grateful instead of grasping for more and better. I’m so thankful for this time instead of I just wish it could have been different.
We serve a God who is known for Big Days, but He does not require a Big Day mentality of us, His children. He requires gratitude. He expects us to thank Him for meeting, and usually exceeding, our basic needs. He expects us to be content. Religion tends to create Big Day behaviors, because religion teaches us that we have to do things to maintain our good graces with God. But God says there’s nothing we can do, nothing we did, to earn that grace; He gave it to us because He wanted us to have it, not because we out-performed (out-tithed, out-volunteered, out-ushered, out-worshipped, out-Bible-studied, out-committee-chaired, or otherwise out-Christianed) some other people to get it. It’s just…there for the taking. We just have to take it. Jesus presented us with this great gift, and we didn’t do a thing to deserve it. Yes, I know that scripture tells us to strive to be more like Jesus. Yes, I know all the rules and dos and don’ts. I know. I also know that “Before Christ came, we were like children; we were slaves to the basic spiritual principles of this world. But when the right time came, God sent his Son” (Galatians 4: 3-4 NLT). His Son, Jesus. You know, the one God sent to “buy freedom for us who were slaves to the law, so that he could adopt us as his very own children….” (Galatians 4: 4-6 NLT)? That’s two mentions of “slavery to spiritual rules,” so it’s pretty clear to me that’s not what Jesus wants for us; otherwise, why all the suffering on His part? Why the ultimate sacrifice? So imagine how He feels when we make ourselves slaves to other things, like perfection or the flawless photo or an ideal tradition. I’ll tell you that He would probably say, “I think that’s enough.”
My daughter is 10 now, and she still gets a little twitchy when something she’s been highly anticipating comes to an end, but the full-throttle meltdowns are mostly a thing of the past. For our part, her dad and I have significantly dialed back pre-Big Day activity. We no longer “talk up” an event or date the way we did back in the “Epic” days; in fact, we try not to make anything seem “epic” at all, and while we willingly share her excitement, we don’t try to generate more as a means to some other end (“Don’t be cranky today, because X is happening in a few days and we should all be jumping for joy!”). When “Rogue One” came out a few weeks ago, we missed the premiere date, as well as the entire first weekend it was out, opting instead to pick her up early from school on the following Tuesday without mentioning it ahead of time. She was so happy to see us, so happy for a surprise early release, that she didn’t even grumble when we told her we were just running errands and thought we’d take her with us. When we pulled into the parking lot of the theater she almost cried tears of joy. She thanked us, and held both our hands as we walked in, and after it was over she thanked us again, and we talked about how great the movie was. There was contentment in the “having happened,” not disappointment that it was over, and then we went on with our normal day, which was already good from the start.
Most days are. Let us try to remember that as we move into a new year. Let us remind ourselves on Big Days, and on Thursdays, and on hard days and long days, that we were made for gratitude, not for griping and groaning and grasping for more, just a little more. Let us be thankful for tiny glimpses of heaven on earth–the faces of our kids, friends, summer rain, fresh air, enough to eat–and even for glimpses of what we might call hell on earth, because in every moment there’s a chance to be thankful, even if it’s not the moment you would have chosen. If your Norman Rockwell Christmas turned out to be a bit more Jackson Pollock, maybe you need to adjust your perspective. After all, for all your efforts to the contrary, you’re not the artist here, you’re the product. Someone else already has that job, and His work is pretty spectacular–put down your sketches and paint and look around.
Since everything God created is good, we should not reject any of it but receive it with thanks. For we know it is made acceptable by the word of God and prayer. -1 Timothy 4:4-5 NLT