The pain stabbed me awake.
Near midnight, on an ordinary Sunday evening, I awoke to the feeling of someone inserting a very sharp knife under the toenail on my left big toe. The sensation lasted ten seconds, then subsided. Forty-five seconds later it happened again: ten seconds of exquisite agony. Then, forty-five seconds of ordinary living, followed once again by the knife. It went that way all night long.
Every forty-five sleepless seconds, the knife.
The merciless cycle continued with almost no relief for three days and two more nights. I’m feeling better now—the right diagnosis and some good treatment and my sciatic nerve has finally cried mercy, for now—but the whole thing showed me something about how to cultivate true thanksgiving, as we head into this Thanksgiving holiday.
It has to do with the ordinary threaded throughout the pain.
What I mean is, during the daytime, when I was distracted by all the demands of daily life, I only paid attention to my toe when the knife arrived, so it felt like I was being stabbed all day long. But at night, there was nothing to do but pay attention the whole time, so I got to fully experience the forty-five second gaps between the pain, as well. And this is what I discovered:
I’m deeply, deeply grateful for forty-five ordinary seconds.
We tend to think of gratitude as something that happens when pain is vanquished, when hardship and disappointment and loss are eradicated from the landscape of our lives. We tend to think of gratitude as an experience that arises naturally when the risk and fear and diagnosis and disease and grief are behind us, rather than on us or in front of us. We tend to think of gratitude as an extraordinary feeling that corresponds with extraordinary blessings and exceedingly good fortunes and a cookie that crumbles in all the right ways.
But the truth is, gratitude can happen in forty-five terribly ordinary seconds.
We don’t have to wait for the pain to go away for good, or the hardship to become less hard, or the disappointment to reverse itself, or the loss to become victory, or the fear to evaporate, or the disease to be healed, or the mysterious ball of good fortune to bounce our way. We need only pay attention to the ordinary moments threaded throughout all of it.
We need only pay very careful attention to the forty-five seconds between our anguish.
In the small hours of the night—in those moments between the knife—I breathed, and I was grateful for my breath. I felt nothing in my toe, and I was grateful for nothing. Strange, to be grateful for something so ordinary that it feels like nothing, but a blessed kind of strange. A strange gratitude that can actually last, because the ordinary moments of life are always there, even amidst the anguish.
This morning, as I awoke, I was grateful for warm, painless feet under the covers. I was grateful for the solid feel of the floor underneath my feet. I was grateful for slippers. I was grateful for the clinking of breakfast dishes from the kitchen. I was grateful for the smell of coffee. For the texture of cream. For sugar. I was grateful for bananas. I was grateful for grumpy teenagers and crabby little girls. I was grateful for the last ladybug of the season, dragging its mortal shell across the counter.
And then I stopped.
And I stood.
And I watched.
And, for forty-five ordinary seconds, the world pretty much stood still.
And I was grateful for the ordinary nothing.
After all, maybe gratitude is the inevitable result of paying careful attention to our lives. All the time. Not just when life is extraordinarily painful, but also when it is ordinarily graceful.
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.