I tell myself a lot of stories. Some of them are really good ones. Ones that say I am loved and able to make a difference. Ones that see God as my father and my friend who can be trusted. Ones where I believe the best about myself and other people. But others are not so kind or good or true. But I tell them and believe them anyway.
When I was in high school, I convinced myself that a strange dead cat was my own. No joke. Sure, it’d been a full week, ending with a full day of cousins in and out of the house for my brother’s baptism. Sure, I’d been up babysitting until late the night before. But when my friend knocked at my door and pointed through the rain into the street at a dead cat, asking if it was mine, the story began in my head. That looked like my cat, Davy, so it must be him. I remember thinking, “How could I forget that cats get hit by cars? It is finally my turn.” She and her mom, in lighting speed, grabbed a blanket from their trunk, wrapped the cat in it and handed to me, offering their condolences and apologies for a quick departure. Over the course of fifteen minutes, I’d conveyed the sad tidings to all of my brothers and we were sobbing in the living room. Every few minutes I’d work up enough courage to “examine the body” a little further by slowly unwrapping the blanket, all the while telling myself a pretty convincing story.
Wasn’t the pad on one of his paws missing? Maybe it was the other paw.
Oh gosh, this little warm body had no heartbeat. I laid my head against the wet fur and cried. Sure, the big lug hadn’t been the smartest but he was ours. It seemed too awful that he was really dead.
I’d unwrap a little more. Blood. Gross.
How strange that his tail was straight, when normally it was pretty crooked. But maybe that was what happened when you get by a car hard enough.
How strange that his feet weren’t as white as I remembered. Maybe I wasn’t paying as much attention as I should have.
In the midst of tears and story-telling, my parents returned from some errands. Unbeknownst to me, they’d already seen the dead cat on their way out and almost came into the house to tell us it wasn’t our cat and they’d handle it when they came home. But instead, they returned to the whole house in mourning. My mom, realizing that I needed a new story and fast, started yelling, “It’s not Davy! It’s not Davy! Look at the tail! Look at the tail!” I tried to process what she was saying. I looked at the tail. It was totally straight. Davy’s had a huge kink in it, almost a 75 degree angle halfway up his tail that we always made jokes about how it got slammed in a door (which if you were wondering, it did not.) Reality came rushing in and I was incredibly grossed out that I’d put my head on some strange dead cat. I was ushered to the bathroom to take a shower, while the cat was disposed of and the real Davy was found. (He had been hiding under a bed during the cousins’ visit early and had fallen asleep.) This story is a family favorite and I had a good laugh remembering and rereading some of the comical details that I’d capture in the account I’d written down as a teenager. But I think beyond the humor, it reminds me of what my brain is capable of. I am looking for meaning. And when there are gaps in what I know, I fill them in with a story. And unfortunately, it doesn’t have to be true for me to believe it.
1 Thessalonians 5:18 says that we are to “give thanks in everything.” The Message says that we are to “thank God no matter what happens. This is the way God wants you who belong to Jesus Christ to live.” I honestly used to think that this was a verse to help get your attitude in check. When something isn’t going well, find something to be thankful for. When something is going well, find something to be thankful for. Attitude is everything, and all that jazz. But this week, in the midst of thoughts of flossing and dead cats and the stories we tell ourselves, I realized that I may have missed something. I think this verse is so much more than instructing us to be thankful or have an attitude adjustment or giving God credit, even though it is all those things. I wonder if we were told this so that we would get in the habit of telling ourselves a story that is true.
I’m more and more convinced that we are “meaning makers” as a favorite professor of my husband’s liked to say. We look for meaning and story in everything. We’re designed this way. In Rising Strong Brene Brown shares this:
In the absence of data, we will always make up stories. It’s how we’re wired. In fact, the need to make up a story, especially when we are hurt, is part of our most primitive survival wiring. Meaning making is in our biology, and our default is often to come up with a story that makes sense, feels familiar and offers us insight into how best to self-protect…Robert Burton, a neurologist and novelist, explains that our brains reward us with dopamine when we recognize and complete patterns. Stories are patterns. The brain recognizes the familiar beginning-middle-end structure of a story and rewards us for clearing up the ambiguity. Unfortunately we don’t need to be accurate, just certain. (79)
This is why I can convince myself that a strange dead cat in our living room is mine. I’m looking for the meaning, the pattern and when I find it, I get the reward of dopamine. Something makes sense. It doesn’t have to be true for my brain to believe it.
I think Jesus followers are told to be grateful in all things because we are always looking for a story to make sense of our lives. And this is one that is true.
Circumstances don’t determine whether or not I am loved. I am loved by God. I can be grateful for his love even when I am rejected or abandoned.
My story feels like it is falling apart. I can be grateful that I am invited into a story that is bigger than my own, the story God has been telling for all time. This is not the end.
I failed at eating well or marriage or school or parenting or at being kind. Fill in the blank. My worth isn’t found in what I do. My worth is found in who loves me. God loves me. I can’t do anything to lose that.
When we choose gratitude, we aren’t just putting a happy face on and pretending things are okay. Choosing gratitude is choosing a different story, a better story. Choosing gratitude isn’t choosing the familiar story of “I’m not good enough” or “I’m not loved” or even blame shifting. When I am truly grateful, I am telling myself a story that is true. Choosing gratitude is filling in the data gaps with truth about who God is and who I am.
He is a good dad.
He is kind and compassionate.
He loves me.
He forgives me.
He fights for me.
I am his child.
I am loved.
I am forgiven.
I can rest knowing that he cares for me.
I think I can forget how powerful these statements are, since they’ve often been turned into cute slogans for a t-shirt or a mug at a Christian bookstore. They are familiar and I don’t always tell myself the story where they are true. They get reduced to a bumper sticker equivalent in my head and they no longer reach my heart. But I think gratitude changes all of that. Gratitude starts to rewire my heart to look for a different story instead of the easy, familiar path of stories that aren’t true. I start to look for other ways that I could see the circumstances that are happening to me. I think this is why the psalmist so often talks about recounting the Lord’s goodness. I think he was telling himself the story of who God is and who he was. In the midst of being wrongly accused or hiding out in a cave or attempts on his life, he couldn’t look to his circumstances for the story of what was true. If David had, he would have come back empty. Instead he looked to what he knew of God and what God had done in the past and could praise him out of that story.
This is who I want to be. I want to be someone who tells stories that are true. I want to be someone who can praise God because of who he is, not what I see. I want to be someone who doesn’t just say grateful things. I want to be someone who is grateful, regardless of circumstances. I want to be someone who tells the story that says I am loved by God.
And that story can change everything, because it is true.