If I was teaching a class right now, I’d give a candy bar to the first person who could tell me where I got the title for my post. But since we are not face to face….
The movie “Pollyanna” played on campus my sophomore year of college. If that seems odd, know that I attended a small, conservative Christian school. This meant most of the movies that were shown were either classics, like “Wuthering Heights”, or children’s movies. Although I did think that someone didn’t watch “My Bodyguard” carefully before clearing that one. That’s right; “My Bodyguard” was pretty racy for our school. But back to “Pollyanna”. I was actually quite a fan of Haley Mills, both from the original “Parent Trap” and from “The Trouble with Angels”. But I was also one of the dark, sardonic kids on campus – or so I imagined myself, anyway. I prided myself on my sarcasm and only laughed when one of my English professors worried about what my heavy diet of Sinclair Lewis novels would do to my view of human nature. So naturally, my friends I mocked “Pollyanna” straight through. Pollyanna has become a synonym for the indefatigable optimist, and for good reason. Her “Glad Game” is the habit of finding something to be happy about in every situation. Through her sunny disposition Pollyanna transforms a New England town and becomes the beloved pet of all the former curmudgeons. But then – wouldn’t you know! – she falls from a tree and is paralyzed from the waist down. I remember my friend Tim leaning toward me and saying, in his best “Little Caesar” voice, “Pollyanna took a dive, suckers. Who wants to play the Glad Game now?”
Yesterday I played a version of the Glad Game. The blame really lies with Sunday School. You see, one of the realities of teaching an adult Sunday School class is that it makes it harder to get away with hypocrisy. It’s one thing to sit in a class while a teacher spouts off about the Christian life. It’s quite another to be the one doing the spouting. My closest friends are in my class, people who know me as I truly am. I have, on a few occasions, noticed a certain look in someone’s eye, or a raised eyebrow. I interpret that to mean, “Cut the crap.” And I do try, really I do. I’ve taught two classes on joy within the last month – not by my choice, I assure you. In the church, joy is like the old joke about weather. Everyone talks about it, but no one does anything about it. We teach and preach and sing about joy, and then, when the service is over, we go back to griping and moaning and biting each other’s heads off. Yes, that is, admittedly, a horribly unfair generalization about Christians. Still. I’ve been there myself. And I don’t think I’m entirely alone.
Every time we talk about joy we end up discussing the role that personality plays. Are some just more disposed toward it than others? And if so, is that not a raw deal for the rest of us? We can’t just manufacture joy, right? One of the wise women in my class said that she sees joy as a gift, but it’s given in response to our choice to be thankful. Even when I’m not feeling it, I can say, “Thank you.” And joy is then more likely to come.
Right. So. Two days later I found myself in a joyless mood. And it wasn’t for some pansy reason like having run out of the good coffee. No, I had a legitimate reason to be upset and worried and sad. But, as often happens, I was starting to take my bleak mood out on Cheesy and Bee – who were consequently going to have their own legitimate reason to be upset and worried and sad. We were on track to become little ripples of gloom on the pond of the world. Remembering the Sunday school lesson, wanting to be the sort of person who actually does something about the weather, in a manner of speaking, I laid out a plan for the girls as we got in the car to head out on an errand.
“Girls, I am having a hard morning. But the Bible says we should be thankful all the time, and I think as we thank God for things that He will give us joy. While we’re in the car we are going to take turns saying what we are thankful for, and it can by anything – even something small that might seem unimportant. I’ll go first.”
As soon as I started thinking, a thousand possibilities flooded my mind, but the first coherent thought, the first thing that came into focus, was my shoes. I glanced down at my feet and thought, “I’m thankful for my tennis shoes.” And then I thought, “Well, okay, that’s pretty lame, but I guess I’ll go with it.” And the truth is, I am thankful for those shoes. They are just ordinary New Balance running shoes that I got a few months ago, but they never make my feet hurt. This is a big deal because I can’t say that about any other shoes I own. And as soon as I thanked God for my shoes, I thought, “And I’m thankful for these new jeans, too. I think they might, technically, be mom jeans, but they feel good and don’t have holes in them and don’t make me look fatter than I am.” And so it went. We took turns and while we hit all of the big items – family, house, friends, “JesusanGod” (as Tess says), we also thanked God for coffee, cheese, pizza, guinea pigs and my laptop.
During the month of November many of my Facebook friends started posted an update each day naming something for which they were thankful. I decided to participate because I am, as a rule, in favor of thankfulness. Believe it or not, I didn’t make it through the month. I ran out of things to be thankful for because I was trying to come up with things that were either deeply significant or clever and entertaining. I do have a knack for missing the point, don’t I?
Maybe some overused advice is overused for a reason. Maybe the old advice to “count your blessings” keeps getting repeated because it makes a difference, because the discipline of saying, “Yes, I have blessings, and thank you, God, for them,” is transformative. It certainly transformed my time in the car with Cheesy and Bee. We were downright cheerful by the time we arrived at our destination. I was having a Pollyanna moment. Which is embarrassing and may officially put to death the image I had of myself in college. I don’t mind. It’s worth it if I can be sweeter to my children and more joyful myself.
And I really am thankful for my tennis shoes.