Gratitude: The Road Less Travelled (Part 1)

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If his name had been Tommy or Jack, this story wouldn’t need much explanation. And if it were normal for a doctor’s son to play with hospital patients, then I wouldn’t need to explain why I played Legos with Losokoi. The only normal thing about the situation was my motivation for playing with him day after day. He was a grateful kid. That, my friends, is a universal magnet. And I never saw him ungrateful even up to his death. But I get ahead of myself.

I spent the formative years of my childhood in Kenya, Africa where my father was the only physician in a rural hospital. My mother would visit the patients to pray for them, and what would be more natural than to drag her children along? She made me bring my bag of legos along to play with any children who might need some friendship. I don’t remember enjoying the experience very much—largely because I hated the sight of suffering, and the smell of Betadyne mixed with human sweat made me gag—but Losokoi was different.

His smile stands out in my memory more than anything else. Dazzling teeth. A spark of light shining in his eyes. When he smiled at me, I felt like an old friend of his, beloved and longed for and finally reunited after a long separation even though we were both only eight years old and we had just met. I remember, too, his quiet spirit and the way his whole body—eyes, mouth, even the slow gesticulation of his hands—exuded gratitude. When he said thank you, it was almost an unnecessary redundancy. He had already been thanking me all along. All this remained so strongly with me after his death that I forgot the details of his suffering and had to ask dad many years later.

Losokoi suffered from Tuberculosis of the brain. He was brought from an outlying tribe. His body had decayed to such a degree that bed sores developed. The hospital staff had to roll him periodically to keep the pustules from peeling away, but they couldn’t keep up. His short stay in the hospital was an agonizing one, but all I can remember is his radiance. He did not obsess over the questions, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” He just expressed gratitude. After only a couple of months, he died in the night. None of the staff wanted to deal with the dead body, so Dad had to take care of it in the pre-dawn darkness. He woke me up so I could help him open doors and navigate his way to the morgue. I don’t remember any of that event. I remember only a pervading sense of shocked disappointment as if the sun had fallen suddenly and permanently out of the sky. When finished, we walked the few hundred feet back to our house for breakfast. We held hands around the table and dad prayed, but couldn’t finish. I opened my eyes. He was crying—a quiet, heaving grief I have seen only a handful of times in my entire life. Mom picked up where he had left off, finishing the prayer with thanksgiving for life, for Losokoi, for God’s abundant goodness.

Delight's expression always takes the form of gratitude. When we delight, we give thanks.

Ben Palpant

Long after that morning, I wondered at his tears. For many years I assumed he wept for Losokoi, but now that I’m a father, I think he wept for me. He wept for my loss and for the horrible nature of death itself—an unwelcome reminder of our broken state—that had suddenly loomed over my childhood. I’m sure that deep down, my father also grieved the arrival of the fork in the road that death inevitably brings and he wondered if I would choose my life’s path wisely. Two roads diverge at the point of pain. One toward gratitude and joy. The other, toward self-pity and bitterness. The first is the road less travelled. The second is an eight lane freeway that cuts through every generation, every nation, every tribe, every political party, and every family. It is the primary thoroughfare of the human heart and those who travel it feel justified by its heavy traffic.

Francis Schaeffer once said that “the beginning of man’s rebellion against God was, and is, the lack of a thankful heart.” His conviction resonates with Scripture. The Bible focuses so heavily on thankfulness that one gets a sneaky suspicion that we’re hardwired to self-destruct if we stop giving thanks. God’s people battle by giving thanks (2 Chronicles 20:21-24). God’s people give thanks at all times and in all seasons (Psalm 92:1-4). God’s people approach his throne with thankful hearts, replacing anxiety with gratitude (Phil. 4:6-7). God’s people give thanks for all things and in every circumstance (Eph. 5:19-20, 2 Thess. 5:18).

It’s easy to read this biblical theme in light of our parents who reminded us to “say thank you.” And we often did so, albeit begrudgingly. But getting us to say thank you is not, I think, the ultimate goal of these passages. Saying thank you is the lowest standard, the bare minimum. The real goal is delight. Delight’s expression always takes the form of gratitude. When we delight, we give thanks. When we don’t delight, we have to work hard to act thankful. And everyone knows that acting thankful and being thankful are not the same thing. Of course, if I don’t feel thankful, it’s better to act thankful than to act the way I feel. But I’d like to reach the point in life when I’m so thankful that I don’t have to act anymore.

Let’s get back to Losokoi. He didn’t have to act thankful because he was thankful. And just in case you didn’t notice, Losokoi’s gratitude was not circumstantial—proof that sadness and delight can coexist. His anguish was real. His delight and gratitude were real too. My little acts of kindness gave him great delight. Even the hospital staff’s efforts gave him cause for gratitude. That kind of selfless thankfulness is increasingly rare, largely, I think, because our affluence has made us discontented and we’re busy fighting for our own way, our own stuff, our own rights. As long as we’re fighting for ourselves, we can’t delight in others.

One test of our gratitude is the degree to which we’re making for others. Delight begets creativity. Do you remember the first time you encountered a quail? What an enigmatic revelation! I bet you ran to find some paper and crayons so you could capture delight. This is just a theory, mind you, a hunch. My theory is that humanity’s best art is born out of some form of gratitude. True, ungrateful people can make art. Selfish people can too (Aren’t we all a little fearful, a little selfish?), but the work we create out of selfishness usually lacks the radiance, the transcendence, the universal appeal of anything created out of delight.

The lessons Losokoi’s short life gives us extend to communities. Like him, communities can take the road less traveled toward gratitude and away from self-pity. He was, by all definitions, impoverished, hurting, even sick, but he was also incredibly healthy in every way that mattered. The same can be true of your community. Impoverished, hurting communities can still radiate joy, but rarely by accident. Joy in suffering is usually the byproduct of habitual gratitude.

Thankful communities point outward. They limit narcissism and selfishness and self-protection by the very nature of their emotional momentum. Our hearts, like any other vehicle, have difficulty changing momentum once they get rolling. We best be sure that our momentum is carrying us toward gratitude, otherwise we’ll find ourselves stuck in a traffic jam on the eight lane freeway.

The Gospels give us several compelling stories of thankfulness, but one in particular can point the way as we learn to live like Losokoi. Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to the town of Bethany where he had previously raised Lazarus from the dead. A dinner was prepared for him there. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those reclining with him at table. Mary took a pound of expensive ointment made from pure nard, and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. There were some who said to themselves indignantly, “Why was the ointment wasted like that? For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii and given to the poor.” Sounds philanthropic enough, but I don’t think they really cared about the poor. What they cared about was the embarrassing extravagance of the gesture. Why couldn’t her gratitude be mild and respectable like theirs? So they scolded her. But Jesus said, “Leave her alone. Why do you trouble her? She has done a beautiful thing to me.”

Isn’t this the incarnation of Psalm 50:23? “The one who offers thanksgiving as sacrifice glorifies me.” Let Mary of Bethany and Losokoi show us how to give thanks. They know the story they’re in. It has moved them to tears of gratitude. The generosity of God has transformed their hearts and propelled them passed scrutiny into an emotional engagement with Jesus that consumes all of their person: body, mind, and spirit.

Mary’s response to this welling gratefulness was to beautify the Beautiful One, to anoint the Anointed One. It was lavish generosity responding to lavish generosity. This is the spring from which all creativity and all Christian work flow. This is the spring around which every flourishing Christian community builds. This, my friends, is where we begin the important work of lighting the dark.

Ben Palpant is a memoirist, poet, novelist, and non-fiction writer. He is the author of several books, including A Small Cup of Light, Sojourner Songs, and The Stranger. He writers under the inspiration of five star-lit children and one dog named Chesterton. He and his wife live in the Pacific Northwest.


4 Comments

  1. Hannah

    I love this intersection of TCK-ness and the Rabbit Room!  Thank you for sharing your story.  

  2. Gllen

    Ooh! How I needed to hear these crafted words today. In this season of my life.
    thank you Ben!
    i pray to grow well because of this…

  3. Matt Wheeler

    @mattwheeler

    Ben, thank you for telling the truth beautifully, reminding us to be grateful, & at the root of that, to take delight in God’s true goodness toward us.

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