I remember the first dot matrix printer that came to live at my childhood home. Twenty years ago, there was no way to sneak through a late-night print job without waking the whole house, its back and forth rhythmic screech inescapable as it ate reams of mile-long paper folded in the yellow square bucket it sat upon. Back then, each 8 1/2 x 11 sheet was connected to the next by a perforated line. Attached to the sides of this unending ribbon of paper were half inch strips marked by evenly spaced holes that helped the printer feed the paper through.
This kind of paper saved a lot of taping together of sheets, especially when I was called upon to make a time line for my high school biology class. Assigned by a coach who was great on the ball field but less than enthusiastic about the classroom, the final project had to be hand drawn, hand colored, and thirty feet in length, depicting life from Precambrian single cell organisms through present-day life on earth. Paleozoic. Mesozoic. Cenozoic. Not rocket science but time intensive, which was its true purpose.
But what if a timeline could be useful? A personal one. What would a time line of my life would look like if I spread it out like this on a strip of continuous paper that reached across my living room and down the hall. Thirty-five years instead of billions.
This post has been sitting in my drafts folder since last year because when I began making a mental list, I quickly realized my list was composed mostly of loss.
I have watched cancer ravage my beloved great-grandmother's body until it withered to eternity; crumbled over the loss of my husband's livelihood; and fallen on my face over the separation from two unseen babies. I have held on for years to the extreme emotional roller coaster of infertility treatments; learned what it feels like to be abandoned by literally all our friends; breathed in the poison wrought by one woman's life-altering lies; and lived through the physical destruction brought by Hurricane Katrina a decade ago.
These major events are how I mark time.
Much as a felled tree cannot hide its good years and bad, my rings would show the thin line of drought, of stress, of trauma. Those deep valleys that walled me in even after the passing of several seasons--they would stand out among the good years so that the blessings of the uneventful would be easily passed over.
A biologist friend of mine says the same is true in how we see nature, something she calls "plant blindness." Take a photo of an elk in the woods. Ask people what they see, and they'll say "an elk," all the while ignoring the grass, trees, rocks, clouds, and sky in the background.
Maybe I have blessing blindness.
The cure for that would seem to be a timeline where I do the opposite, where I count the thick rings of blessings. I think back again, this time marking time in joy--spending three long summer months with missionary family overseas, growing up in an undivided home, meeting and marrying my husband, spreading my wings in a college environment I loved, finding a home church, welcoming my children into the world.
The problem with this, though, is now I have two parallel time lines--one of loss and heartache, the other that I readily count as blessings.
And that's the problem.
Both are blessings.
Our society tends to encourage us to draw lines around ourselves, to separate family from work, to divide church and state, to work through the bad and cling to the good. With so many lines, our lives begin to look like a Venn diagram on steroids, making it hard to see the whole picture.
Granted, it's not healthy to dwell in the loss, the sadness, the betrayal. But parceling those parts of our lives off as non-blessings doesn't work either. Although it may take a lifetime, developing a true attitude of gratitude requires us to filter all through the lens of blessing.
Even in the loss was God carrying us through, even in the betrayal was a God who stuck closer than a brother.
Life is not a dichotomy of blessing and non-blessing. Instead, all is blessing. The thin rings are equal to the thick ones. It sometimes just takes time for us to see that for in every loss, there was also something gained on the other side of it.
Image: Peter von Stackelberg's timeline of social, technological, economic, and political trends from 1750 to 2100. Click through to view the larger size.