Gratitude: humility for the smug

Today’s post is an essay written by one of my English Composition II students, Kyle Hill, who happens to be an amazing writer and critical thinker. Kyle wrote this essay in response to a question regarding his motivation for expressing gratitude. It has been a privilege to teach Kyle, and I can’t wait to see what God does with him over the next few years. 

Little progress can be made with a closed mind.  As Albert Einstein once said, “A problem isn’t solved with the same level of consciousness that created it.” Personally, most of my positive character development has occurred amidst the humility resulting from an often self-imposed disaster.  While reeling in the aftermath of a fight with loved ones, the guilt of bad behavior, or a harsh court sentence, humility opens my mind. Before such incidents, I am often stubborn and arrogant, unwilling to listen and unmotivated to curtail my behavior. After my world comes crumbling down, as it has many times, I am blessed with both willingness and a keen ear for suggestion. With the newfound enthusiasm for character development that is brought on by failure, much progress is made. Then the humility slowly wears off. Arrogance, pride, and pretention creep back in and set me up for yet another self-inflicted crisis.  If only humility had a longer shelf life, but it doesn’t. Try as I may, I cannot maintain humility. If, through a miraculously divine act, I was granted eternal humility, I would end up bragging about it to friends and strangers. A substitute for humility is needed for my continued growth.  The only sufficient substitute for humility I have found is gratitude.

The problem with humility is that it is a feeling. Feelings never last. Whether it be extreme happiness or abysmal despair, emotions are temporary. Gratitude, on the other hand, is an action I can take regardless of how I may be feeling. I can thank my family for their patience and understanding. I can thank my friends for their support and encouragement. Both teachers and mentors can be thanked for going the extra mile. Never is my character more honorable than when my actions are guided by gratitude. Self-respect runs rampant when I do something nice for the many loved people in my life. Sharing a list of the superficial things in my life that I am grateful for is both self-centered and also does little to improve the lives of those around me. I prefer to take actual, loving actions to express my gratitude. I help the people I love because I am truly grateful for them. Help may be lending an ear to their troubles or assistance with a menial task. Help may be as small as an invite to the coffee shop, with the promise of good laugh, or as large as making a house payment for a friend in need. Talk is cheap. Love is an action.The actions of gratitude infect my mind.

After a session of gratitude driven actions, something peculiar happens inside of me. The too familiar feelings of pride, greed, and arrogance subside, and I see just how lucky I am. I am not thankful for my morning coffee; I am thankful for the unearned ability to attain it. I am not thankful for the roof over my head; I am thankful for the undeserved skills I have been blessed with that ultimately provide the roof. Most, if not all, of the truly great, beautiful things in my life are gifts. I neither earned the countless blessings in my life nor did I conjure them into being. Whether it be the product of luck or the grace of the Divine, I have done very little to warrant such a fantastic existence. Humility is elusive to me, but my gratitude is beyond abundant.

The golden ticket essay

*One of my students, Jared Tickner, in Comp II this semester gave me permission to share this essay with all of you. This is his first essay for the semester; I read it after reading a stack of other essays that were good essays but didn’t quite measure up in one way or another. Some of the essays contained interesting content and fit the assignment criteria (write a 2-3 page essay explaining your core beliefs and how those beliefs impact your daily choices) but fell short in the grammar, style, and mechanics departments, or were more polished grammatically but somewhat boring or unorganized. I kept looking for my “golden ticket” essay–a real winner in each category. 

Then I read the opening line of Jared’s essay. I was hooked. I literally stepped out into the hallway and did a happy dance and announced that I’d found my golden ticket. I’m sure my fellow faculty members were thrilled by my discovery :). The essay isn’t flawless, but it’s beautifully written and impacted me upon reading it. 

Thankfully Jared agreed to allow me to share this essay with all of you. Thank you, Jared, for your honesty and the sharing of your gift of writing. As my former professor (and wonderful poet), Andrea Hollander, used to always say, “Keep writing!”

 

I saw my first murder when I was four years old. I don’t remember much about my childhood, but I remember that. I grew up in a town of 100,000 people in central California. My family tree is not one that would be considered ideal. I come from a long line of addicts and abusers. I am the only male in my immediate family who has not been to prison; therefore, I never had any good examples when I was growing up. I did, however, have plenty of bad examples. I never noticed just how abnormal my life was when I was a child. I never expected or strived to be different from anybody else, but what I’ve come to understand is that I am not ashamed by anything that I have done or anything that I have been witness to. The events of my past have shaped me into the man who I am today. I am not proud of some of the things that I have done in order to survive, but I am not ashamed of any of my actions either. I was physically abused by my father, and I watched my brothers quite literally attempt to kill each other.

I was fifteen years old the first time that I realized that I was destined to be a failure in life. My father had come to visit me for the first time in five years (he had been in prison). I was excited because I was old enough to attempt to get into his head and try to understand why he made the decisions that he had. I had gone through a multitude of questions that day while I was waiting for him to come over. When he finally showed up, he said hello to me and then ignored me for the rest of the time that he was there. My father chose to sit outside with my half-brother and talk to him. I could not understand why he didn’t want me, why he chose my brother who wasn’t even his biological son. I had never felt more unimportant in my life, and it made me angry. I decided on that day that I was going to accomplish everything in life that he wanted and failed at. That was the day that I began to live my life for all of the wrong reasons. That was the day that I chose to let my inner rage control me, instead of me controlling my inner rage.

In November of 2005, I lost my ability to know love. That month, my grandmother died, and I felt my sense of normalcy die with her. My grandmother is the women who truly raised me. I lived with my mother, but I spent all day with my grandmother. My brother was born with a very rare bone disease in his left leg, and he had to have it amputated when he was eight years old. My mother spent the majority of her time in San Francisco with him. When she wasn’t at the hospital with him, she was at work. When my brother was a teenager and into his early twenties, he made life hell for all of us. He had been addicted to morphine since he was eight years old and spent the majority of his time fighting, drinking, doing drugs or stealing my mother’s car. Due to his misgivings, he received all of the attention which I perceived as love. The only person who ever showed me unconditional love was my grandmother, and once she passed away, I felt alone. At this point, I felt wronged by my family. I had never been in trouble; I had never done a fifth of the things my brothers did, and yet all of the love went to them. I now understand that my mother did the best she could, but at that time, it just made me hate the world. My trust issues come from this time in my life. I felt that I couldn’t trust those closest to me because I was not appreciated. I had nobody left to turn to for help, so I turned to prescription pills.

Being addicted to pain pills is what changed my life. I was numbed to all of the outside world. I did not care about anything, and it was amazing. All of that changed on January 9, 2008. My fiancé at the time left me and took my one year-old son across the country. It was the first time I openly wept since I was a toddler. As my depression grew, I sank deeper and deeper into my vice until one day I put a loaded nine millimeter pistol into my mouth and pulled the trigger.

It did not fire. Something greater kept me alive that day, and I started to realize that I have a purpose in this life. I dropped the gun and cried even harder. I then looked in the mirror and decided I was no longer going to accept the stigma that comes with my last name. I stopped taking the pills, I stopped drowning in self-pity, and I started looking for my purpose in life. The thing I believe in is that nothing can guide me down a path that I don’t want to walk. I am the creator of my own destiny, and I refuse to accept anything but redemption and success.

The most influential and guiding force in my life is my past. I am now able to reflect on the way I grew up and let all of the hate go. I am a better man than my father, and I have the ability to raise my children to better understand their emotions. My goal in life is to give my children every opportunity I had to sacrifice for. They will not grow up in a home where they are scared to go to sleep at night. My greatest fear is that my children will grow to be like me and not want to look at themselves in the mirror. That is a fear that will not come to fruition. I am no longer going to be part of a broken chain. I am starting a new chain with my family, and I will be the strongest link. I will raise my children to be confident and curious.

They will be loved, and they will know it.

–By Jared Tickner

 

Change gonna come

*Thanks to Mary Agrusa, today’s guest contributor, for sharing this beautiful piece with everyone.*

summer_haze_by_purpledino92-d5b2qf6

Summer Haze by Purple Ino 92

This weekend I saw it. Looking out my living room window I got the distinct impression that fall had arrived. Perhaps the approaching storm played tricks with the refractions of the sun’s rays, but the world outside was glazed in a more muted, mellow glow.

Mid-July in the Deep South is vaporous, a steam bath. Humidity spikes and the air is thick and muggy. Clothes stick like second skin as I stop glistening and start sweating. The autumn hue was deceptive. One step outside and reality hit like a warm, damp wash cloth. Still – the hint was there. Fall’s on the way.

I’m cognizant of the subtle, seasonal changes in the sun’s light long before the calendar or temperature confirms my observation. In the depth of winter I’m encouraged that warmer days are in my future. When everything wilts under summer’s sweltering haze, I take heart. It won’t be long before the trees adorn themselves in shades of vibrant color, citron to deep burgundy, and stand out in brilliant contrast to the cloudless, cobalt blue sky. I enjoy spring and fall the most. I prefer their moderate climes to the penetrating cold of winter or summer’s stifling heat.

Life appears to emulate the cyclical rhythm of nature. We have new beginnings and periods of growth (spring); the out-growing and passing of the familiar and established (fall). Like winter, the cold, hard grip of loss: loved ones, jobs, health, finances and the like leave us buried. Entombed under an avalanche of adversity we wonder, “Will I ever see the light of day again?” Like the onslaught of a long, hot summer we find ourselves under intense, relentless pressure and cry, “Will someone PLEASE, turn off the heat!” Depending which season life finds me in determines how tightly I cling to it. At times I want to move in, unpack and stay forever; other times I’m running hard for the nearest exit – if I can find one.

I’m thankful that in life, just as in nature, God sends hints that change gonna come. I praise Him for those snippets of hope that remind me that this too will pass. Reinforced with fresh, clearer vision, I’m rejuvenated to continue my walk of faith, confident that He knows exactly where I’m at and He’s in control.

Outside my window the sun now blazes and the temperature matches its intensity. I’m not concerned – I’ve seen what’s coming and I’m prepared for change.

My mother’s Bible

*Thank you, Lorie Mink, for sharing your reflections and gratitude in this post.*

While searching my closet for a pair of slippers, I came across my mother’s Bible. It’s been sitting on the shelf since we moved in the house three years ago. And I can’t remember the last time I opened it. Mama’s been gone for ten and a half years now, and it’s been almost that long since I took it out of its case and looked through it. So I did.

My mother’s Bible is a treasure trove of memories. There are pictures of the grandkids, notes from the grandkids and from her former Sunday School students, bits of paper with Bible verses written on them, even old letters from family stuffed in between the pages.

Even the cover, with her name pressed in faded gold lettering, holds memories. The corners are ragged and chewed on, thanks to a Maltese Poodle mix named Critter, who passed away at 13, just two short years after Mama died. Rubbing my fingers over the jagged edges immediately brought forth the memories of that dog, who Mama swore she didn’t care that much about but loved as much as I, sitting at her feet on the porch, head resting on her house-shoed foot, while she drank her morning coffee and read the Word of God each day.

Ribbons and bookmarks were placed here and there by highlighted bits of scripture that she felt were important to remember. Even Valentines and inspirational cards could be found.

My mother’s life is held in this Bible. The scriptures she liked and highlighted, the bits of paper she felt important to keep, even her driver’s license, birth certificate, and marriage certificate are nestled in the pages.

As I leafed through her Bible, I immediately felt connected to my mother again, as if she sat beside me telling me the stories of what each piece of paper and picture meant. As I read over the highlighted passages, I also felt my connection to God rekindle.

God and I are just now renewing our old friendship. He’s been there patiently waiting for me to come back to Him. I stubbornly held myself aloof. I’ve always believed in God, thanks to my mom, who instilled this belief in me at an early age. But I kind of took a veering path, not necessarily away from Him, but distant to Him nonetheless. Shifting through the pages of Mama’s Bible seemed to shift things in my mind. And suddenly I saw God, sitting quietly beside me as if He’d been sitting there for a long time patiently waiting for my return. As if He had nothing better to do but wait for me to come to my senses.

It’s been a tough two years for me. I’ve had to deal with some situations I really wish I hadn’t. But I mistakenly believed I had to deal with them on my own. Now I know I don’t have to. I talk to God every day. Sometimes, He still seems distant. Sometimes I feel like I am talking to Him as if through a long tunnel, where the voices carry but are faint. I know this is me, not Him. I know He hears me perfectly and answers me in His way. I am the one who is distant, who is unable to hear Him clearly or understand all that He says to me. But I know that the distance is fading every day.

And though I am still going through troubled times, I know He is with me, drawing me nearer every day. I am truly grateful for all He has given me. Especially for leading me back to my mother’s Bible.

Give them their flowers

Today’s beautiful post is written by Latresha Woodruff Johnson, one of the most encouraging people I know. Latresha, thank you for continually pointing me to God and reminding me that there is always hope in Him.

IMG_7283My grandmother was named Jewel, and how fitting, because she always gave us little pearls of wisdom.  She also left us with some funny saying as well, some laced with a few four letter words (I won’t repeat those here), but I will share these:  When talking about my uncle, whom she said couldn’t keep a secret, she would say, “That boy couldn’t hold 5 ounces of water in a 10 gallon bucket with a lid on it,”  or for people who think they know it all, “His head is bigger than yours and he don’t know everything so neither do you.” And this is what she would say when you were “testing her nerves” by doing something she told you not to do: “You don’t believe fat is meat greasy!” 

Momma, as we all affectionately called her, tried to teach us to always be grateful to people even for the small things that they do.  Now here is where I insert a pearl of wisdom from Momma, “Give them their flowers while they are here.”  

 

Latresha Woodruff-Johnson

Latresha Woodruff-Johnson

That’s pretty self explanatory, but I will further break it down. She meant — say thank you to people while they are living on this earth; don’t wait until it ‘s too late.  I  know what it feels like to smell the flowers of gratitude.  I spent 16 years as a television news reporter, and now my job is to keep news reporters informed.  There was one particular reporter who I saw some promise in, but she tended to be very inconsiderate of my time and would show up unannounced.  I am a matter-of-fact person, so I definitely put her in her place, nicely though.  But again I saw promise in her, so whenever she would come by, I gave her pointers on being a great reporter and putting her stories together to make them effective.  I have watched her grow into a seasoned reporter, always thinking some veteran reporters at her TV station really must be spending time mentoring her.  Well, to my surprise, she sent me flowers this week – not literally but figuratively the way momma sent flowers.  I got a card (a nice handwritten one the way I like them–all personal) from this young reporter which read:

 

LaTresha,

You have taught me so much!  Your encouragement and feedback has helped me grow over the last 3 years into the reporter I am today.  I’ll be sending you my work from Cincinnati for more tips!  Thank you for always being so sweet, so accessible and such a joy to work with. I wish you all the best! Merry Christmas and Happy New Year…..

 

I can still smell those flowers… the fragrance will linger in my mind for years to come.  I feel like a proud parent. She is going to one of the largest TV markets, and I, the little ole girl from Mississippi, played a small role in molding someone into not only a master at her craft but into a kinder person. 

 

*So Lisa, I am giving you your flowers and showing you gratitude for making me proud of you and for making me feel that my words to you resonated and made a difference.  

*Bethany, I am showing you gratitude for being that person who isn’t afraid to share with the world your struggles with raw and pure emotion and honesty and allowing us to celebrate your victories and milestones and sharing that beautiful baby girl with us.  I know you, like us all, are a work in progress, but it’s clear GOD has his hands on you.  It’s so nice to be there to watch you continue to evolve.  You are a wonderful person and a woman of GOD, and I love you.  Smell the flowers!!  

*and God,  I try to show you gratitude daily by praying, reading your word and being an elevator person to others instead of a basement person.  Thank you for looking past my faults and seeing my needs.  Thank you for your Grace and Mercy (or as momma would say “thank you for dem old twins  — Grace & Mercy”), they are new everyday.  I love you Lord, I have your flowers, and I know one day you will call me home to heaven, and I will be there with a big bouquet saying,”Here I am Lord; smell your flowers!”

 

LaTresha Woodruff Johnson

The gift of a second chance

*Over the next few days, I’ll be posting essays by my amazing students who wrote in response to the question, “What are three gifts–proverbial or literal–that you’ve been given in 2013, and why are they significant to you?” Their responses made me laugh, cry, and most of all, thank God for the opportunity to invest in their lives. Today’s post is by a student who wishes to remain anonymous but wants to share her story. Names and locations have been changed.*

giftThis year, 2013, has been filled with  many life-changing events and blessings. Out of everything I have received this year, there are three special gifts that have made 2013 one of the happiest periods of my life.

The first gift I received this year was meeting my boyfriend John. We met this April on an online dating website, and we’ve been in love ever since. After a painful break-up with my ex-boyfriend in March, I was determined to find someone who would make me happy and treat me well. On a whim, I created a profile on a popular dating website and waited to see what would happen. It wasn’t long before I received a message from John, and I felt a connection right away.

At that time, I was living with my sister in Jonesboro, while he was living in Batesville. We spoke on the phone for hours every day, and we eventually decided to meet in person. My family and friends were concerned for my safety because meeting people off of the internet can be dangerous, but I was confident that everything would be fine. We met in Batesville for sushi and a movie at his place, and it was one of the best dates of my life.

After that,  we became inseparable. Even though our work schedules and distance apart made dating difficult, we were able to maintain a good relationship and quickly fell in love. Not long after our first date, John  offered to let me to move in with him in Batesville, and I was apprehensive at first. I had made many impulsive decisions in my dating life, and I didn’t want our relationship to end badly. After a lot of thought, I decided to go ahead and move in with him. Even though it was a struggle adjusting to a new town, John made the transition a little easier for me, and I am happier in our relationship than I could ever imagine. John has given me a love that I’ve always wanted, and I am very thankful to have him in my life.

The second gift I received this year was the ability to further my education at the University of Arkansas Community College in Batesville, or UACCB. In high school, I didn’t have any motivation or desire to perform well. Growing up, I had a lot of things going on at home that affected every aspect of my life and made school very difficult to handle. I ran away from home when I was 17 years old, and because of that, I was court ordered to stay at a hospital’s treatment center until I was 18. I graduated high school on the day of my discharge from the hospital in 2007, and I have kept my stay in the hospital secret for many years.

I felt ashamed because I had graduated from a mental health facility, and thought that I would never be able to perform well in college due to my past.  Many people in my life have encouraged me to go to college, but due to financial reasons, I felt like that wasn’t an option for me. When I moved to Batesville with John, I was finally in a position to attend college. Even though I didn’t necessarily want to apply for classes, I thought I might as well give it a try to keep everyone from bothering me about it. Now, at the end of my first semester, I can say that I am very happy that I decided to go college. I never dreamed that I would become a straight “A” student at 23 years old, and it makes me feel very proud of myself. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed all of my courses and have made a lot of great friends. College has given me the courage to achieve more in life and to believe in myself.

The third gift I received this year was becoming employed at a gas station. Before moving to Batesville, I worked as a Licensed Certified Nursing Assistant at a nursing home and was financially independent. Despite the good pay I received, I was miserable and loathed my job. Once I was living in Batesville, I assumed that I would have no problem finding a job. I quickly realized that wasn’t the case. I spent almost three months unemployed, and every application and job lead that I followed led to disappointment.

Finally, the week before the fall semester of college started, I received a call from the gas station about a job offer, and I gladly accepted. I have prior experience in sales, and I easily adjusted to my new job. All of the employees were very warm and welcoming, and I became fast friends with all of them. I also met my best friend Savannah, who is like a sister to me. My first months in Batesville were very depressing because I had no money and didn’t know anyone besides John. If I wouldn’t have found a job, I was seriously considering moving back home, which would have been a mistake. I have never been financially supported by a boyfriend before, and not being able to take care of myself was a big blow to my self-confidence. Now, I am happily employed and grateful to have a job that I love.

The year 2013 was filled with so many things that have changed my life for the better. I am thankful for all of the gifts I have received and the good people who are now such a big part of my life.

One teacher makes a difference

*Big thanks to my friend Henry Petty for sharing his gratitude for his sixth grade teacher with us–and thanks to all educators who make a difference in the lives of students today. Stay tuned for other “back to school” posts.*

Henry with Mrs. and Mr. Elumbaugh

Henry with Mrs. and Mr. Elumbaugh

I can count on one hand the number of teachers who really inspired me and left an impact, and this spans from high school through college. Let me tell you about Mrs. Margaret Elumbaugh.

She was Mrs. Beard when school started. I can remember she had this poster up of a drawing of somebody wearing a beard, and that was her. She was the kindest person to me at a time when I was so very vulnerable. I was wearing tattered clothes in a scholastic melting pot of characters: the rich kids mixed with 2 oz. of po-po kids (poor). She and Mrs. Bently were the ultimate tag team of teachers. They genuinely cared about their students, and you could tell.

I can remember being a very unpopular kid in school; I never got my haircut because my grandma cut it for me, and it hurt really bad. And she cut it holding a bowl over my head, hence the “bowl cut.” People spat on me, called me “wet back” because the naïve students thought I was Hispanic (I’m Filipino, dummy), and made fun of me for my hand-me-down-from-a-yardsale clothes. My life was a nightmare. And that was during recess.

But she treated me just like the other students. She didn’t care; she had love in her heart. She would have this giant bag of Jolly Ranchers to give the good kids for doing..well.. good :). I always enjoyed Mondays because she recounted the weekend excursion to Little Rock which she and “Bubby,” her husband at the time, would take. Or she would tell us about some movie they went out to see. I was too poor to see a movie, much less make the scary trip all the way to Little Rock from Batesville, so this was like storytime and show-and-tell for me. I now live five minutes away from the very mall she talked about going to, and when I’m walking around, she comes to mind.

She inspired me to do more with my life. She convinced me that I was special just like any other kid, that I was a good-hearted person with lots to give to the world. When I tried to be someone I wasn’t, she called me out on it. I started walking down the hallway with a “limp” because I saw somebody do it on Arsenio Hall, and she looked at me and said,”Don’t do that.”

I was arguably the poorest kid in her class, very shy, and as unpopular as orange juice after brushing your teeth. I was bullied often, made fun of on a daily basis either for my clothes or darker skin. On the day of our Christmas presentation, I completely forgot my line and was feeling crummy about it. I got back to my desk and found a giant artbook with color pencils and magic markers. She had gotten those for me as a gift because she always saw me drawing. She nurtured that gift which eventually led to my love of entertaining and doing YouTube videos. Thank you, Mrs. Elumbaugh. I never forgot.