Some friends tell the story of how during their years of service in the mountain jungles of Bolivia, they enjoyed papaya so much that they longed for their own tree. The trouble was that the seeds wouldn’t grow. They had no small experience in tending to fruit trees–they were orchardists in the U.S. But on those tangled slopes south of the equator, their lovingly tended papaya seeds wouldn’t germinate. They never came up. Our friends soldiered on in disappointment, buying their papayas from the local market.
Except that the papaya did finally come up in one place. They had this little compost pile where they pitched the vegetable remains of the day, including the peels and black-speckled guts of papayas. One evening, when dumping a bucket of husks and stems and fruity cast-offs, our friend discovered papaya seedlings growing up out of the pile. The green shoots had come up on their own, unexpectedly, with no help and tending. The impossible-to-grow papaya had shot up in an impossible, overlooked place.
It strikes me that what leads us astray so often in life is a sense of disappointment. We deserve better, or so we think. Things should have gone better. People around us should have done better. Disappointment can sometimes be a motivating force. But more often than not, disappointment weighs down our souls. We experience the whole world as being just a little bit worse than we think it should be.
The flip side of disappointment is gratitude, especially gratitude for God’s mercy. It’s the sense that all that we have and all that we are ultimately traces back to God’s enormous mercy to us. It’s receiving life itself as a gift–a little bit better than we could have imagined.
We tend to ultimatize God’s mercy, seeing only its cosmic dimensions, painting mercy with the big, broad brush-strokes of salvation and destiny and providence. But to experience God’s mercy is also to know the little moments when something springs up in our life unexpectedly, with no help and tending on our part. It’s to receive with the gratitude the fruit that grows up in our lives in the least likely places. (The soul’s compost pile?)
There’s something freeing about gratitude that helps us live in the world as it is rather than in the hypothetical world we might prefer. Maybe the essential spiritual discipline is to look at the disappointing places in our lives, the places where we’re not expecting to find the good things of God, the sometimes painful places–and see what green shoots God might be coaxing into the light.