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Warming Up with Gratitude

The picture of the snowman is no stock photo. As soon as I saw him leaning in my neighborhood, I recognized the family resemblance. I knew his grandfather. I should say I built his grandfather some 45 years ago.

Growing older teaches you that words can change meaning over time. Take the word “snow” for instance. When I was a boy, the word meant a magical substance from Heaven with powers to delight, beautify, and free children from school. As our recent Arctic event proved, the word has a much different meaning to me now. My updated definition is a frightening substance with the power to demolish power grids, burst pipes, and trap families indoors for days.

While desperately trying to navigate my car through icy neighborhood streets, I caught a glimpse of the snow grandchild. The snow around him was beginning to melt and his vertical hours were numbered, but something stirred inside as I pulled to a stop to take his picture before he puddled.

I think the feeling was Gratitude.

His grandfather tried to teach me about this feeling long ago, but most days, it lies buried under layers of worry, minor irritations, and general busy-ness. As a boy in the deep South, it would get good and cold a handful of times a year, but rarely did low temperatures and precipitation coincide. And if it did snow, it was usually just flurries. Flurries are the mean-spirited fairies of the weather world who enjoy teasing children with the possibility of school closure and winter playtime without accumulating enough to accomplish either.

But one year, it all came together. Frigid air, frozen ground and tons of flakes. Six inches of accumulation, and now I could experience joy and recreation generally available to Yankee children alone: snowball fights, sledding (on trash can lids), and the making of snowmen. The fun of snowball fights quickly melted after being stung in the ear with a few and sledding apparently requires more incline than my driveway or neighborhood landscape could provide. So, I spent most of the day building a snowman.

Taking an un-thrown snowball from my stockpile, I rolled it along the width of my front yard. Back and forth I went, as the ball slowly grew to large rock dimensions and eventually boulder size. Television celebrities like Frosty and the Rudolph singing snowman taught me that snow adults were three snowballs tall, but that was harder work than I expected. As I began losing feeling in fingers and toes, I tailored my snowman down to Two-Scoops. He would have to rely on my encouragement that height did not make might.

I was proud of my creation and watched over him from the living room window. Before dark, I went outside to make sure he was snug for the night and that he knew that my bedroom was just a few feet away in case he needed anything. My first instinct when awaking the next morning was to toss open my curtains and see him standing at attention.

And then the bad news started. Schools were not closing for a second day, so I needed to catch the bus at the regular time. I asked my Dad, “How can we have school when there is snow everywhere? Isn’t that against the law?” My Dad cleared up the legal matter by informing me that the snow was melting. “Gonna be much warmer today.”

MELTING! My mind immediately went to my snowman. How could life be so cruel, and short? Of course I didn’t say this to him. He was especially sensitive about the “s” word given his diminutive size. But I said it to myself, all morning while I got ready for school.

As I walked out to catch the bus, I passed through the drips of melting icicles from the roof line. I didn’t have the words to say goodbye to my snow buddy. I didn’t have the heart to tell him what awaited him as the day drew on but gave a wave through the bus window as we pulled away from the stop.

My mood soured throughout the school day, and I tried to toughen up on the bus ride home. I was angry that the snow had not lasted longer, and especially that I didn’t even get to spend a full 24 hours with my frosty friend. All the way home, brown yards burned through remaining snow patches that were trying to stay alive in the shadows.

When the bus stopped in front of my house, I could see from my peripheral view that my front yard was nothing but boring brown. All the magic stuff was gone. Had any boy ever lost as much as me? An illegal full school day cruelly imposed when snow was on the ground. Losing my invaluable work of frozen art, and probably never getting to enjoy snow for the rest of my life.

But when the bus pulled away, my snowman was still standing! He was tilting a little bit, but I could still hear him whisper through parched lips, “Hey buddy! I hung on until you made it home. Just wanted to see you one last time.” Never met a snowman with such heart, but I hated seeing him suffer. Unable to watch him drip away slowly, I walked over to him and kicked him to pieces. Better the foot of a friend than the cruel rays of the sun slowly taking him apart, I thought.

As I brooded into the house with my dark cloud hovering overhead, my mother hugged me and asked if I had seen my snowman. “YES,” I shouted. “Why couldn’t it have stayed cold just one more day?! Who cares! I kicked him down.” My mother looked hurt which I suspected was that trickly empathy thing she would do to try to change my mood. “Oh honey! I wish you hadn’t done that. Your Dad kept your snowman in the freezer all day and put him up for you to see when you got home.”

WHAT! I thought. Dad did that? For me? And then it slowly dawned on me how I had paid no attention to the magic that protected a snowman on a warm day. Why didn’t I notice that every inch of snow was gone except my little buddy? It had been a miracle that I looked right past. I missed what my snowman was really trying to tell me. “Be amazed and be grateful, not for what you are losing, but for the special things you got to enjoy. Be thankful for the snow that came as pure gift and laugh at short snow guys that refuse to melt.”

Gratitude is more than polite manners…practicing saying “Thank You” when people do nice things for you. Of course, the world could use more politeness, and these days, good manners are a miracle in themselves. But genuine thankfulness is more than that. Gratitude is a supernatural eyesight that softens the heart and dispels the darkness.

When the Apostle Paul wrote his letter from the Philippian jail, he had the audacity to use words like “rejoice” and “be thankful” repeatedly. How could someone be unfairly accused and unjustly incarcerated, and still rejoice? Maybe he had discovered not only what a virtuous thing it is to be thankful, but also what an active ingredient it is to ward off destructive habits of the mind and heart.

Some of his most cherished words include how not to be anxious. He wrote about a peace that exceeds the limits of our imagination…a muscular peace that stands guard against intruders like worry, envy, and paralyzing fear. He explains that this peace comes to the people who take their worries and wrap them in prayer, asking God’s help and seeking his presence. Oh, and don’t forget a key ingredient, Paul said. Sprinkle generously thanksgiving (Philippians 4:6-8).

Turns out he was right. I am unable to explain how it works, but I have seen enough to know that it is nearly impossible to be both thankful and anxious, grateful and bitter, appreciative and apprehensive. C.S. Lewis wrote that gratitude aimed at God is “inner health made audible.”

Take just a tiny snowball of thanksgiving and begin to roll it along the memory of your day. Your few thanksgivings will begin to accumulate others and grow. Before you know it, you will be able to stand back and admire the beauty that comes to us day after day from Heaven.

Magical stuff that the hottest sun or the coldest day cannot harm.

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