Learning Not to Walk

by Lynne M. Baab

After knee surgery, when the doctor told me I couldn't walk for exercise anymore, I had to reframe the way I view life, which is no longer a panorama of unlimited possibilities. I was never physically fit enough to climb Mount Everest, but then I never wanted to climb Mount Everest, so I wasn't bothered by that limitation. This was the first large limitation that had truly changed my life.

Because walking with my husband had been such an integral part of our relationship, I was feeling particularly blue one evening after swimming laps in the pool. I decided to treat myself to some relaxing minutes in the hot tub. Lowering myself into the water, I hated my life and my body, always longing to be thinner. But as I sat in that hot tub, wishing I were thinner, I looked up, almost as if drawn by God's voice, and saw a woman so overweight that she couldn't wear a swimming suit. She had a roll of stomach fat that drooped down her thighs, and she walked slowly, with discomfort, by the hot tub. I was filled with compassion for her because of what she had to face every day of her life.

I could almost hear God's voice saying to me, “You may be overweight, but it doesn't affect your life the way this woman's weight does hers. Are you going to be grateful for what you have, or are you going to continue to complain about what you don't have?”

I sat in that hot tub feeling grateful for about four seconds. Then I began to feel sorry for myself about my knee. I miss walking so much. I miss the random thoughts that come through my mind when I'm walking alone, thoughts triggered by luxurious gardens and racing clouds. I miss the rambling conversations with my husband, our thoughts moving in various directions because of the rhythm of our feet on the pavement. I was almost in tears, sitting in that hot tub, missing walking.

I got out of the hot tub and wandered morosely into the dressing room. On my way to the shower, I saw a woman entering the dressing room pushing an empty wheelchair. I wondered why the chair was empty.

I took my shower. As I walked to my locker, I passed that woman, now sitting in a secluded dressing area, the wheelchair beside her. She had taken off her clothes and was in the process of removing a prosthetic leg that extended up to the middle of her thigh. Obviously she was going to use the wheelchair to get herself to the pool. I was complaining about the limitations of having a left knee that gets sore easily; the woman in the locker room didn't have a left knee at all.

For the second time that day, I could hear God's voice asking me if I was going to be grateful for what I have or if I was going to continue to focus on what I don't have.

I know very clearly that there will be continual losses for the rest of my life. In fact, from my observations of people of various ages, the losses will accelerate. Friends and family members will die, and I will grieve deeply. There will be health issues, both for myself and for the people I love. I will watch both good and bad things happen to my kids, my husband, my family and friends, and I will not be able to control any of these things. I know there will be pain, and I won't like it one little bit.

I hope I can grieve for the losses that I will undoubtedly experience, and at the same time be deeply aware of the many blessings of my life. I hope I can leave behind the naiveté of the first half of life that believes that a continual stream of good things will happen. I want to be deeply honest about the pain of the losses, and I also want to be deeply thankful for the many good things that crowd my life.

I have a loving husband, two kids who are out of the nest exploring the world, a wonderful job with interesting things to do every day, friends and family members whom I love and a nice house in a great neighborhood. These are huge blessings. There are also so many small blessings that I can overlook so easily. A bite of a delicious salad, the sweet and tart flavors intermingling. The evening sun reflecting off the cedar tree in our yard. A light breeze on a warm day. A touch on my shoulder just when I need it. Being prayed for. The right word from a friend when I need encouragement.

I have been thinking lately about Georgia O'Keefe's flower paintings. I learned that she began to paint those huge flowers when she was living in New York City. She came there after living in the wide-open spaces of the West, and she found it difficult to be surrounded by crowded sidewalks and tall buildings that obscured the sky and the sun. She began to look intentionally at the small, beautiful things in her life, and she discovered the complexity and wonder of the detail in flowers.

That's what I am learning to do. I hope and pray that my life is marked by thankfulness for all of God's beauty and blessing that come to me every day even if – as happens all too often – these bountiful gifts are intermingled with things I don't like at all. Every day, aspects of my life are as beautiful as a flower, and I want to notice them and give thanks to the Giver of every good and perfect gift (see James 1:17 KJV). I want to age gracefully. I don't want to be one of those people who has nothing but negative things to say. At the same time, I don't want to be falsely cheerful with a pasted-on smile. I want to be honest about the losses and pain that are inevitable in the second half of life. But I also want to be aware of the precious gift of life with all its large and small blessings so that I can age with grace and love.

My journey of thankfulness has continued, and I’ve written a lot about different aspects of thankfulness:
Growing in thankfulness 
Quotations I love: the Jerusalem Talmud on enjoying good things  
Quotations I love: Thomas Merton on our transparent world  
Quotations I love: Fear and regret and thieves    
Thankfulness and sentness    
A thankfulness challenge  
Another thankfulness challenge  
Drawing near to God by noticing patterns    
Thinking analytically about ACTS prayer
  
Let’s get creative with ACTS prayer 

(Originally published in 2004 in What We’ve Learned so Far: Thoughts on Turning 50, edited by Lucinda Secrest McDowell. Reprinted in 2010 with the title “Give Thanks” in 30 Ways to Embrace Life: Wise Women Share Their Secrets, also edited by Lucinda Secrest McDowell.)