I once heard of a psychological phenomenon called “missing tile syndrome.”
The idea is that if you walk into a room with a beautiful marble-tiled floor and there is one tile missing in the center of the room, the missing tile will get all of your attention, and you’ll fail to notice the beauty of all the other tiles. I’m not sure if there’s any scientific data to support the theory, but I don’t think we need a bunch of expensive research on this one. Can’t we all testify to it?
The missing tile is the loved one we lost, in the crowd of those we didn’t.
Or it’s the loved one who is still here—but not really here, not really present, not really loving you the way you hope to be loved—sticking out like a sore thumb amongst everyone else who is doing their best to be with you.
It’s the bully on the playground who cancelled out every other friendly face.
It’s that one cutting remark, still echoing forward from your past, every other gentle word merely the empty space in which the painful one reverberates.
It’s the failure here and there, glaring amongst all the successes.
It’s the thing your spouse always forgets to do, like a sliver beneath the skin of everything they do remember.
It’s every gift that wasn’t under the tree with all the rest.
Last month, I released my first novel, The Unhiding of Elijah Campbell, and the launch was a commercial success—it debuted as a #1 New Release in fiction with all sorts of 5-star reviews on Amazon. That doesn’t happen without a lot of support. Nevertheless, it was tempting to stare at the missing tiles.
I didn’t give in to temptation, though, and I found myself overwhelmed with gratitude for all the other tiles in my life.
Those of us who gathered at the 4U Ranch the week before launch. My launch team who bombarded social media with their recommendation of the book. The friend who purchased a copy for everyone he knows. The Front Row Dads who pinged me all week with messages: “Ordered.” “Got mine.” “Can’t wait to read it.” The friend who checked in every night asking how all of it was going. My high school English teachers, and the mothers of two high school friends, and everyone else who showed up at Books on First in Dixon, IL, for the local book signing. The friends who rolled through our open house for the rest of the day. The lector at church who prayed for the success of the book. So many other lovely souls I couldn’t begin to name them all, and my wife amidst it all.
Beautiful tile after beautiful tile, as far as the eye could see.
Of course, we’re wired to stare at the missing tiles, to pay attention to problems so they can be fixed. And there is a time for staring at those missing tiles—we need to create spaces where we acknowledge, feel, and work through the pain of their missing-ness. But that time isn’t all the time. And as human beings, we are also wired with the capacity to consciously redirect our awareness.
We are about to enter the season of missing tiles.
The holiday season tempts us to pay attention to who isn’t there, the things we don’t have and aren’t going to get, the sometimes elusive joy of the season, the peace that isn’t present, the merriment that won’t manifest. But that might just be the blessing of putting Thanksgiving right at the beginning of it.
Thanksgiving asks us to look at the whole floor.
It asks us to pay special attention to all of the tiles that are present, in their marbled beauty. Jon Kabat-Zinn says that if you’re breathing there’s more right with you than wrong with you. The breath—that’s a pretty important tile we tend to overlook. A warm dwelling place. That’s a tile. The laughter of a child in the midst of every other unlaughable thing. That’s a tile. Some gravy. A single bite of pumpkin pie. Memories that aren’t all bad. A walk in the woods and the aching bones to walk it. A moment of rest at the end of the day.
Tile after beautiful tile, as far as the eye can see.
This year, may your gratitude turn the season of missing tiles into the season of present ones, and may your joy be abundant, not because the floor of your life is exactly the way you want it to be, but because it’s beautiful anyway.
In his debut novel, Kelly weaves a page-turning, plot-twisting tale that explores the spiritual depths of identity and relationships, amidst themes of healing, grace, faith, forgiveness, and freedom.
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Dr. Kelly Flanagan is a psychologist, author, consultant, and speaker who enjoys walking with people through the three essentials of a truly satisfying life: worthiness, belonging, and purpose. His blog writings have been featured in Reader’s Digest, The Huffington Post, The 5 Love Languages, and the TODAY Show. Kelly is the author of Loveable and True Companions.