It's a Wonderful Gift
Updated: Jan 22, 2020
The Best Gift Is One You Can Give Yourself
Like most families who celebrate Christmas, we have a few annual traditions. On the trip to see the relatives who live in a suburb of Cleveland about 150 miles north of us, my wife drives while I read Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. And on Christmas night we watch the 1946 Frank Capra classic, It’s a Wonderful Life, with Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed.
I’ve seen the movie often enough to serve as understudy for any character in the film from Uncle Billy to ZuZu. When the whole town comes marching into the Bailey house one by one throwing into the fund to keep George out of jail, I get choked up. It’s not the generosity of the characters or the relief that George isn’t going to need to trade his blue suit for prison gray. It’s instead the look on George’s face. His expression is one of complete and utter gratitude, the look of a man who has been given a second chance and knows how to appreciate it.
It also provides a great lesson for us on the gift of gratitude.
If I were allowed to offer only one suggestion for experiencing more happiness in your life at home and at work, it would be this: express gratitude right where you are and for what you already have.
Not long after our son, Alex, was born, I developed an illness in which I experienced painful swelling in my joints. I ran a low-grade fever for days on end and I lost energy. Every movement was difficult and before long I was reduced to shuffling like an elderly man.
The doctor ordered blood draws and tests. He ruled out lymphoma, rheumatic fever, Lyme disease, and lupus but he still had no explanation for the symptoms except that blood tests indicated a high level of inflammation. For the next six weeks I was unable to run or climb the stairs without arthritically pulling myself along by the banister. Worst of all, I was unable to hold our infant son while I walked. I kept thinking of how effortlessly I had done all of those things just a few weeks before and how little I had thought to appreciate any of them.
Now that I couldn’t do the things that so recently had seemed unremarkable, they became the things I desired most in life. I imagined the exhilaration of charging up the stairs two at a time or running outside with the wind rushing in my ears. Mostly, I thought most about how much I wanted to hold our son in my arms. Every time I thought of that I felt desperate to get better quickly because those days seemed to be slipping by so quickly.
The condition and its exact cause were never diagnosed, but after six weeks or so, I began a steady improvement. The fevers abated and my joints had less swelling and more freedom of movement. Finally, I was able to do the things I had dreamed about for almost two months. I took the stairs two at a time, I ran to the store instead of strolling, and I walked with my son in my arms and a smile on my face. For a long time afterwards whenever I reached the top step of the stairs, I said a silent prayer of thanks.
I never again want to experience anything like that, but—like most adversity—it had a lesson to enrich my life. The lesson was to pay grateful attention to the smallest things and to realize how blessed I am even when things in life are imperfect. I’ve learned the simple mechanism of applied gratitude and it is this: perception is your reality and gratitude focuses your perception.
That was the story of George Bailey in that wonderful old film. George has dreams of a wonderful life defined by escaping his small town for a life of travel and adventure. But then his dad dies and there is no one else to take over at the Building and Loan. Enter Donna Reed and a depression and World War II and a snarling banker named Mr. Potter and George is facing middle age with a house full of kids and a cash shortfall that will likely send him to prison. It’s not the wonderful life he had in mind at all.
In a moment of despair George wishes aloud that he had never been born, and—with the help of a guardian angel named Clarence—George gets the chance to see what that would have meant to the people he loves.
When the vision ends, nothing in George’s external reality has changed. George still has a problem with the bank examiner, he still has more debts than income and he still has never left Bedford Falls. But a profound change has taken place inside George. He runs down the same main street of the same “crummy little town” to the same drafty house with the same loose newel post on the banister and he is suddenly the happiest man in the world. He even declares, “Isn’t it wonderful? I’m going to jail!”
George learns to be grateful for all that he has and when he really regards his blessings, he doesn’t just choose to stop complaining, he can’t complain. His gratitude cancels complaint and the only emotion available to him is joy. He sees what until that moment has been invisible to him: his family, his home, his friends, and the knowledge that he has lived a life that has mattered.
If, starting in this moment, you would name your blessings from the irreplaceable people in your life to the work you get to do and the smallest things including--if you are so blessed—the ability to walk or climb your stairs, you will give yourself a wonderful gift and, like George Bailey, you’ll find joy in knowing that yours is already a wonderful life.