Many years ago, I had a friend who suffered from a brain tumor that affected her motor control. One day when I was visiting her, I watched as she slowly navigated a set of steps in her apartment. “I never realized how difficult it was to walk down a flight of stairs until I had to think about it,” she said. There was no self-pity in her comment. She said it with a smile. She was genuinely surprised at how complicated the process was.
I, of course, who had never given any thought to the mechanics of walking, felt guilty. And so, for the next few days, I tried to think about it. I tried to be conscious of what it was like to take each step. I gave up after a few attempts because I found that I couldn’t think about it. I just walked. I couldn’t help it. Which I suppose is what my friend meant.
There are many things in our lives like that. They are the things we take for granted. Things that are so commonplace we hardly think about them. They comprise the vast bulk of the world around us. We feel bad when we notice the fact. But I am not sure that we can do anything about it. I am not sure that we should.
Awareness of those things we take for granted usually comes only after we have lost them.
Awareness of those things we take for granted usually comes only after we have lost them. We get a promotion or change jobs and miss the familiarity and ease of our former position. We move to a new location and suddenly realize what we miss about the place we used to live. In his essay entitled “Creatures of Place and Time,” theologian Gilbert Meilaender describes the sense of loss he felt after he moved from Oberlin, Ohio to Valparaiso, Indiana. He notes that it doesn’t matter much whether the place where we used to live was desirable or not. “One walks certain routes, enjoys certain trees, recognizes certain people” he observes. “We have doctors and dentists, grocery stores and shopping malls, baseball fields and banks, churches and schools. All become deeply embedded in a pattern of life.” It is the comfortable familiarity of that pattern we miss.
This is true of other changes as well. I’ve heard married people wish for the days when they were single, and the suddenly single speak wistfully about the days when they were married. We all have moments when we take note of someone else’s loss and worry what the experience might be like for us. The sense that we have taken something for granted is rooted in the knowledge that something has changed. It doesn’t have to be significant. Often the things we notice are so mundane that the only remarkable thing about them is that they are now gone.
Sometimes this sense of what has been lost makes us aware of other things we take for granted. When my dog died last year, I became aware of how much I missed the sound of her breathing at the foot of my bed during the night. One evening, as I was thinking about the silent space my pup’s death left behind, I started listening to the quiet rhythm of my wife’s breathing as she lay beside me. I am thankful for it. It is precious to me. But would I want to notice it every night? Would I want to lay there and dwell on her every breath? There are times when this happens to couples. It’s called snoring. The beauty of Jane’s quiet breathing, or my dog’s for that matter, is that it is quiet. It is unobtrusive. It is familiar. It is the background noise of my life.
Jane and I live in a lake town. Our house is only a few blocks from one of the loveliest beaches in the state of Michigan. Before we moved, we used to visit during the summer. Every time we came, we made it a point to watch the sunset over the lake. But after we moved here permanently, we found that we did this less frequently. It’s not that we have forgotten about the sunsets or find them to be less beautiful. But we do feel less of a sense of urgency than we once did. If we miss a sunset today, we know that the sun will go down again tomorrow. I think this is true of most of the things we take for granted.
Often the things we notice are so mundane that the only remarkable thing about them is that they are now gone.
The things we take for granted are often a part of the familiar landscape of our lives. They are a display of what the theologians call “common grace,” a demonstration of the goodness of God which has been granted with such extravagance that we hardly notice it. They are evidence of the generosity of the One who “causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matt. 5:45).
What, then, are we to make of the losses that suddenly and painfully make us aware of the things we take for granted? Are they a kind of punishment? This is how we often view them. We worry that God has taken these things from us out of spite. Maybe if we had been more aware, if we hadn’t taken them for granted, they would still be with us. We should know better, of course. God is not spiteful. But I do think that God sometimes uses loss to bring past goodness into sharp relief and to provoke us to gratefulness. This, too, is a grace, but it is a grace with a bleeding-edge since the gratefulness we experience feels so much like regret.
“God ties our hearts to particular times, places, and people—and then the same God tears us away from them so that we may learn to love him with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind,” Gilbert Meilaender observes. God does this, he explains, not to hurt us but to help us. Such experiences are designed, not only to help us recognize the beauty or value of what we have lost but to remind us that our true home lies elsewhere. They show us with a kind of blunt force that, like the patriarchs of old, we too are aliens and strangers on the earth, who welcome God’s promises “from a distance” (Heb. 11:13).
Occasionally we try to bully ourselves out of taking things for granted. We attempt to shock ourselves into gratefulness by saying things like, “I cried because I had no shoes until I met a man who had no feet.” This kind of reasoning never seems to be especially helpful. It sounds more like a threat than a blessing. In a way, this sort of reasoning is merely a reversed form of envy, which seeks to comfort us in loss by pointing out that we still have more than somebody else. “I may not have what I want,” it says, “but at least I have more than that guy!”
Those who say that we should never take anything for granted are asking for the impossible.
Is it wrong to take things for granted? Sometimes. They say that familiarity breeds contempt. Familiarity can also breed entitlement. If taking something for granted means that we are not grateful, then it is a problem. But I don’t think we need to feel guilty about many of the things we take for granted. It can’t be helped. In his book The Four Loves, C. S. Lewis points to an ancient distinction between pleasures which are pleasures preceded by desire and those pleasures which are pleasures in their own right and need no preparation. A drink of water is “a pleasure if you are thirsty and a great one if you are very thirsty,” Lewis explains. “But probably no one in the world, except in obedience to thirst or to a doctor’s orders, ever poured himself out a glass of water and drank it just for the fun of the thing.”
Those who say that we should never take anything for granted are asking for the impossible. It is like expecting someone to be in a continual state of awe or ecstasy. Even if we could achieve such a state, it would eventually become a new normal and descend to the level of the mundane. The awareness that we have taken something for granted is the tension created by absence that fuels our sense of gratefulness. There are moments when we become sharply and often painfully aware of what was once ours but is no longer. But most of the time, we make our way along common streets. We work at our familiar jobs and have our small conversations. We awake to the sound of the rain as it drums on the roof in the heart of the night. And with a quiet sigh, we turn in our beds and go back to sleep.