Carl and I were at church on Sunday morning when our pastor played a clip from one of my favorite Christmas movies, Elf. It was the part when Buddy has just arrived in New York. He’s running around in the revolving door, congratulating the shop with the world’s best cup of coffee, and hopscotching over the crosswalk lines. It’s just the best.
As I watched it though, a thought struck me: That kind of whimsy, that sheer delight, is exactly how I want to live my life every single day. But the more I thought about it, the more I began to wonder if my outlook on life lately has looked more like Scrooge than Buddy.
These are definitely two extreme characters, but I think they’re great examples of how we see the world. Some of us walk around and see all of the beautiful, wonderful things in the world, and some of us walk around and see only the messiest, most frustrating, most unpleasant things.
So what’s the difference between these two kinds of people?
I think we all kind of assume the difference is natural. There are some people who are wired for positivity, and others who are more negative. Maybe we do have a natural bent to us, but I actually believe it’s a learned outlook more than a natural one.
When I was on the World Race, we spent three months in Africa. We spent a short time in Kenya, and then a month in each Tanzania, Rwanda, and Uganda. It was one of the most beautiful, formative times in my life, but with a different outlook, it could have been rough.
The thing about traveling to a different part of the world is that there are ample opportunities to complain. There are about a thousand reasons to feel uncomfortable, frustrated, or indignant as you long for the comforts that usually feel like a right.
Bugs, strange food, showering out of a bucket, uncomfortable sleeping arrangements, being packed onto buses to travel with a hundred strangers—some of them sitting in your lap—and an assortment of livestock…you get the idea.
As we began to get acquainted with what our lives would look like in such a foreign place, I realized I had two options. I could either be frustrated by all the comforts I no longer had, or I could be grateful for everything I did have.
I could either find fault in everything, or I could find beauty in everything.
I chose beauty.
Somewhere around this time, someone recommended that I read Ann Voskamp’s book, 1000 Gifts. In the book, Ann accepts a friend’s dare to count 1000 gifts, writing down every lovely thing she notices in a notebook until she reaches 1000. The practice was simple, but it changed her life. With just a bit more attention, she began to notice the things that were there all along, just waiting for her to see—just waiting for her time, attention, and delight. And she found that as she counted gifts, as she aimed the spotlight at the beautiful things, the hard things didn’t feel quite so hard anymore.
So I gave it a try.
For the three months we were in Africa, I counted gifts. I got a tiny little notebook made out of recycled elephant “dung” (the package’s words, not mine, and yes I’m serious), and started counting gifts.
They were small sometimes, and insignificant to the untrained eye. But my eye was being trained. I was learning to see what had been there all along, but what I could have easily missed.
And it changed everything.
The frustrating, unpleasant things were still there, but I found hidden blessings in them, things I hadn’t seen right at first. Not only that, but the frustrating, unpleasant things shrank in comparison to the beauty that filled my notebook.
Counting gifts changed everything for me in Africa, and I think it does for us here today too (that’s why I started The Loveliest Things!).
As we walk through even a day, there are hundreds of things to complain about and be frustrated by. But there are just as many beautiful things, gifts waiting for us to take the time to see and notice and shine a spotlight on.
And I think the difference isn’t something we’re born with. I think the difference, like I discovered in Africa, is learned. It just takes practice to retrain our eyes to see the lovely things, and when you’re focused on the lovely things, it changes everything.
As we go into December and into this Christmas season, I want to take lessons from Buddy the Elf and Ann Voskamp. I want to be delighted by the littlest things, not annoyed or frustrated by things that don’t really matter. And so that’s the attitude I’m working to cultivate.
I found a little notebook (made out of normal paper this time), and started counting gifts.
I want to see the beautiful things in life, shining a spotlight on them, and giving them all of the attention, the delight, and the wonder they deserve. Buddy would be proud.
What about you? Want to count gifts with me?