I read a short article once on a curious phenomenon. As humans, we notice and are thankful when we receive good things. We also notice and are resentful when we lose good things, or receive bad things. But we almost never notice when bad things fail to happen. The bacteria that never attack our intestines, the plane crash that never occurs, and the argument that never leads to the breakup of the friendship or marriage — these things don’t impose themselves on our attention. We neglect them, and forget to be thankful for everything we don’t have.
So here is an exercise in what I’ll call “negative thanksgiving.” It’s the kind of thanksgiving one can give even in times of hardship. Not all times are plenteous and abundant, but the mercies of God are always at work, perhaps sometimes more active in what they prevent than in what they provide.
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Let me give thanks for things that have not been:
For all that did not kill me at my birth,
For tears unshed, for no untimely worm
To turn this flesh again into its earth.
For hours I have not hated, for the long
Unnoticed absence of enduring pain,
For sleep unbroken, for no ceaseless strain,
For griefs not keen enough to spoil mirth.
For loved ones never lost or left for dead,
For every mishap (time and time again),
In which I never maimed or killed a man;
For lightning yet unfallen on my head.
For prayers unprayed – or if I prayed them once,
For those unanswered; for the strong
Unbroken silence of the darkened nave;
For grace withheld, that would have done me wrong.
For that great test which like a crucible
Has passed, and passes from me every hour;
For orders never given, for no call
To do the deed for which I lack the power:
For all I have not done or hope to do,
For all I am not, other than that thing
I cannot help but feel I should have been:
For these let me give thanks. O wise and true,
Before I leave my offering and go hence,
Let me re-echo in another sense
The words of the Apostle: Greater far
Are all the things that are not, than that are.