Gratitude. It’s something we hear a lot about, especially this week. But, there is something that has a greater impact on our lives, like gratitude, but more richly. What is it?
You see, gratitude is something you do, an action. But contentment is a state of being. It’s not just an act; it’s who you become. What I mean is that we don’t say “practice contentment,” like you would say with “gratitude.” Rather, we say to “be content.” We do say “be grateful,” but that often means for something or a particular time, like “you should be grateful for this present, or this food, etc.” Whereas, “contentment” is what you are. And therein lies the magic.
With gratitude, we’re told to give thanks for this and that, and we have our gratitude practices, journals and yoga poses (I don’t know if the last one exists or if I just made it up). But after we’re done practicing, journaling, yoga-ing. It’s easy for us to fall right back into complaining, wanting, pining.
“But John, I practice my gratitude sessions every day,” you might be thinking, “and I hear people talking about gratitude all of the time.”
I applaud you and am sure that you are practicing it, but I think we talk too much about gratitude; and not enough about contentment.
Because, even though you have that practice, you still live with dissatisfaction and envy and a grass-is-always-greener syndrome. Deep down inside, you probably think that if you get that upgraded car, or prettier spouse, or more money, or that new job, or better home, or whatever, then you’ll be happier. And you might be for a bit. But you won’t stay that way. That happiness will fade because practicing gratitude is a start, not the fulfillment.
Just because we practice gratitude doesn’t make us live gratefully. When we are content, that’s the fulfillment of gratefulness.
A sign that someone is content is if they look at their life and sincerely say, “This is exactly where I’m supposed to be right now, and I’m glad” even with all of the crap going on, the pain, the difficulties, mixed with the joys and blessings and goodness.
“Contentment” means you’re satisfied with who you are, what you have, where you are, etc. When you look around at your life and at yourself, you’re filled with satisfaction.
It’s not that gratitude or the practice thereof is bad—far from it. Gratitude is a part of contentment. To be content, we must have a gratitude practice and that can include our spirituality.
For Christians, like me, contentment should be particularly applicable to us. God is called our “portion” in the Scriptures, and that means he is everything we could ever need or want. And if we believe in him and that he is truly God, then we should grow in our contentment. We can know that this world does not have what we really want. For what truly feeds us and gives us joy isn’t here. It’s him, the Eternal Being.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I struggle with contentment, too. Very much so. Even when I’m doing my warrior one gratitude poses on my fancy yoga mat, getting my grateful namaste on, telling myself that I’m glad to be here right now, I can still feel a twinge of envy for this or that thing I want but don’t have.
But, I am improving. If I can, so can you.
So in this great season of Thanksgiving, let’s not just give thanks. Let’s learn to be content.
For, today is a gift.
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This week an old friend’s wife died. It was sudden—tragic. She was young, around my age, too young to die. They likely had dreams of growing gray together, wrinkled, swinging on a creaky porch swing, talking about their grown kids and grandkids. Now that’s gone.
See, life can sucker punch you in the face. It can knock the wind out of you, and make you feel like you’re dying.
But that’s not my point. The point is to enjoy—no, savor—each day.
And I don’t mean to party hard and do something thrilling. I mean sip and take in the moments and the mundane things like embracing your spouse, telling your loved ones that you love them, eating a home cooked meal with family—the things we get to do everyday, but often take for granted because they are so normal. When placed against the finality of death, those are the things that matter most.
So let your palate of life absorb each and every flavor. Relish them. Feel satiated.
For life’s a delicious gift.
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Yesterday we baked and shipped 240 cookies that same day. It’s the highest count so far in the short life of our little company, Clean Cookie Co.
With our kids crying and needing food, uncertainties around fulfillment, the clock ticking down, and the sheer mountain of cookies, nonetheless, we made it.
Don’t get me wrong, we were grateful for it—all of it—it just wasn’t easy. Actually it was incredibly challenging.
Our daily routine was halted. My wife started baking early, like 3am early. I didn’t do my usual work. Cookies was all we did. All we could do. It was all hands on dough. Even our six year old chipped in by feeding our baby. It was mayhem.
Then there were the non-cookie, cookie issues. We had to keep all of the orders straight. We hated the idea of missing anyone. So spreadsheets were made and cross checked. Formulas were even used. “Who had vegan and non-vegan cookies?…Are you sure?” was asked multiple times.
That was hard; this was harder: packaging. Previously, we had shipped to others on the coasts, west and east, and customers and friends said they were good. But we wanted it to be better. So we tried a new way we’ve never tried before. It took a lot more work and made the cookies uglier, but we thought it would improve freshness for their trek to all parts of the country.
(To anyone who ordered, please let us know your feedback. And if there was a problem, let us know so we can find a way to make it right.)
Most of the orders for this heap of cookies came from friends. And we wanted it to be right, special, loving.
To be real real, we have no idea if they will be. And it’s nerve racking, really.
That’s the thing about starting a business or doing anything outside of your comfort zone; sometimes it’s not comfortable, at all. In fact, it can be straight up uncomfortable.
So after a full day of cookie-ing, we wait.
We wait for the shipments to get to you. We wait for you to eat them. We wait for your feedback.
We’ve enjoyed serving you, finding solutions to problems we never imagined solving, making more cookies than we ever thought possible, and packaging them up to send throughout our nation, from our kitchen to your tables.
And our hope is that they taste like home to you.
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This week my friend told me a story that broke my heart. The man who mowed my friend’s lawn, came up after he finished his work and told him that he really needed money and asked if he could borrow some. He needed $50.
Could you imagine working up the courage, the shame inducing gumption, to ask for that? Not $100,000, $10,000, or $1,000, not even $100. It was 50.
My friend held out the money and said, “Take it, but, please, don’t worry about paying it back.”
I’m writing this not to make you feel bad. It’s just to raise the awareness of the utter pain, stress, and agony that is going on in the world (which I was barely aware of until I heard a few stories recently, including the one I just told).
If you have more than many, then you should give to those who have less.
That will not only change your mindset of thinking you don’t have enough; it will remind you of how much you really have.
Giving to others makes us grateful.
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Our son was born with a birth defect called a cleft lip and palate.
This happens when the lip and roof of a baby’s mouth doesn’t fully close up in the womb creating a gap, thus the “cleft.”
During almost all of the pregnancy, we went about our lives completely unaware of it.
Finding About the Cleft
We were so excited to have another child, and with each passing day, the excitement grew. And around 36 weeks, we were ready to pop emotionally and physically. But something strange started to happen.
My wife experienced mild contractions, but not enough for labor. We were surprised but not scared, at first. Then the contractions went on for days.
Alarmed, our midwives thought it could be the placenta blocking the birth canal, which was scary. So they rushed to get us an appointment for a full anatomy scan of the baby to see if that was the case. It wasn’t.
But the doctor found something else.
In the tiny examining room (in New York City most rooms are tighter than you think they should be), my wife could sense that the doctor was uncomfortable. Eventually she found the words to say, “Your baby has a cleft lip and palate.”
I couldn’t be at the appointment but met my wife at the clinic so that we could walk home together. When I saw her there, she melted into tears. So I wrapped my arms around her and tried to provide some comfort.
Her reaction frightened me, and I asked her if the baby was ok. She said yes. But there was clearly more. Then she told me why she was so distraught.
And, after a moment, I said, “So, he’ll be like Joaquin Phoenix.”
She looked at me with a look that said: “What the #%*# are you talking about?” So to clarify, I said, “You know, the actor with the cleft lip; he’s famous,” and rattled off a couple of his better movies.
She ignored me. “I guess she wasn’t looking for clarity,” I thought.
Eventually, we walked out of the sterile clinic, hand in hand, bracing ourselves for the unknown as we plunged into the outer world.
Once we hit the streets, we prayed. It helped both of us.
Then we did the thing that she was dying to do—plan. Planning is my wife’s love language. So we talked through the scenarios and what we needed to do to find the best care we could and how we would go about it. I was already googling up physicians in NYC who specialized in this as we walked through Brooklyn on a chilly but sunny day. A course of action started or form as we made our way to the subway platform.
Everything started to feel ok again, when she said, “So. Joaquin Pheonix,” and smirked at me. “Yeah,” I said, as I googled him up and showed her a picture of him, “He’s a good looking dude, right?” She seemed to give an approving look. I said, “See. Our baby will be fine,” reassuring her.
Cleft Birth, at Home
A couple of days later, she went into labor. We weren’t sure if the baby was coming or not. But then something switched on, and it got real.
And all the while my wife was laboring, I held a hope that our baby didn’t have a cleft thinking there was a chance the doctor was wrong. But she wasn’t.
Twenty minutes later, our son was born, and it happened so fast that the midwives didn’t have time to arrive to make the birth. So my wife and I were alone (as we were for the first one).
He was healthy, but he had a full unilateral cleft lip and palate, which means his cleft was on one side and extended to the back of his mouth and up to his nostril.
I just wanted our son to be ok, healthy, “normal.” He was beautiful. But he was also different. He had a gap in his face.
Surgeries were also in his near future.
We had already researched all kinds of doctors, knowing who was the best and where they worked and reviewed their resumes and read all of the reviews and what so and so said about them in 2013. We talked to other parents of cleft babies and asked about their surgeons. We dug deep.
Then it was time to do interviews, which sounded like speed dating with surgeons. We set up meetings with our top three.
But after interviewing the first one, something clicked. He was confident, as all surgeons are. But more than that, he had a determination to provide the best outcome for his patients. And the postoperative pictures were amazing. Also, he specialized in cleft operations. It’s all he did. And somehow, there was even a twinge of humility in him. We liked him; and more importantly, we trusted him. So we canceled the other interviews because we didn’t need to look further. He was our guy.
The weeks that ensued were much harder than we thought they would be. It probably had to do with the fact that we were essentially shaping our baby’s face with a piece of acrylic, called a NAM.
Our baby basically needed a “retainer” for the gums, called a nasoalveolar molding (or NAM). It’s like that plastic contraption people wear on their teeth that an orthodontist will give them after they get out of braces. But our baby had that for his gums on his upper jaw (since newborns don’t have teeth).
He had to wear the NAM all day every day for the most part. And my wife and I (but mostly she) would fasten it to his face with surgical tape and rubber bands, the same ridiculously tiny ones used for braces. Every week my wife would go in to see the dentist so that he could adjust the NAM.
Our baby screamed a lot during that time because shaping a face with a big piece of acrylic in your mouth probably hurt him, or at least it was super annoying. So, like a banshee, he would rail at the top of his lungs. And for such a small human, he had a huge voice. And he would employ it for hours, sending us curling into a fetal position, feeling like we needed to vomit. It was hell.
There was also some screaming between my wife and me. I mean, having a newborn is hard enough with the lack of sleep and diapers and blowouts and making sure they’re gaining weight. Fights are bound to happen. But add the fact that your trying to pull one side of your son’s upper jaw to the other side to close a wide gap in his face is something else entirely. Babies cause stress. With the cleft, that was taken to another level. Sometimes we went nuclear.
But regardless of who was screaming and no matter how loud it was, we were grateful for the results. We knew that doing the NAM well would make a huge difference for the outcome of our child, so we wanted to overachieve here. And, Thank God, it worked.
After three months, the cleft shrank to a sliver.
But, nothing prepares you for letting your three month old baby go under the knife. The surgeries were planned. And the first one was scheduled. But we were terrified.
The lip and nose came first. Waiting for him to get out of the operation was terrible, but the transformation was astounding. After the swelling from the surgery went down and he started looking like our baby again instead of a boxer after fighting ten rounds, it almost looked like he never had a cleft. (These days, you can’t even see the scar.) It was amazing.
Then seven months later, right as the coronavirus started to ramp up in NYC, we had the palate surgery. To this day, I have no idea how the surgeon closed up the cleft on the roof of his mouth. One moment our baby had a gap on the top of his mouth. Then, later that same day, it was gone.
There was only one problem. It was agonizing for our baby. With stitching everywhere and raw flesh, it looked like the roof of his mouth was Frankenstein-ed together. It essentially was. And that meant pain. He was desperate for pain-killers, which we gave him. We agonized with him.
But all of that is past us now.
And these days, what happened almost feels like a dream, a distant memory of some event that probably occurred. It could have been someone else. And the truth is, it is.
There are thousands of other families who go through a similar experience, and many aren’t able to get the kind of care we received.
So, I’m grateful. It makes us—my family and me—more compassionate. We can empathize with and have compassion for those who also have difficulties or circumstances that are worse than ours. All of this has softened our hearts and made us more aware how hard parenting can really be. Having a baby is a dangerous business. It can crush your heart. But it’s worth the risk.
Best of all, we are grateful that God gave us this baby. He’s special. He’s undergone a lifetime of pain before he’s even tasted his first birthday cake. Some of the experiences were awful, but they gave us perspective. And we are richer because of him and all of the moments we’ve had, good—and bad.
Before the birth of our baby, if you had told me that a birth defect could be a gift, I would have thought the idea ridiculous. But now, I know it’s not.
We are blessed: We have a son who looks like Joaquin Phoenix. 😉
This is Cleft Awareness Week. And this is our story of having a cleft baby.
Love to you all.
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Cascading down a lush green knoll, blanketed by wildflowers, you run free, without care and full of mirth, breathing in joy and exhaling love: You live.
Slowing your strides to a saunter, you drink in the beauty that embraces you, enveloped in serenity, bathed in light, wrapped in love. There is no one with you, yet you feel the communion, as birds sing and creation flutters around you, dancing among you with each step.
You wander, wondering not for the destination, but for the grace of being—here, now. You are present, aware of the goodness without and within. It’s like drinking in the warmth you feel when you first walk into your home from playing in the snow, and loving hands give you a freshly made mug of hot chocolate—deliciously loved.
Pause in the hustle of life. Drink in these moments; sip them down. Savor them. With lovers, colleagues, strangers, or alone, look around and enjoy the moment—and rejoice.