ValueSpeak - A Weekly Column by Joseph Walker


I poked my head into my 19-year-old son Jonathan’s room the other night and found him kneeling beside his bed, praying. You would think that as a parent I would be thrilled to see my teenage son praying – and I was.



It’s just . . . there’s this side of me as a parent that wonders: “What’s he praying about?  Is he troubled?”  Or, more to the point: “WHAT DID HE DO?”

I’ve kind of always been that way.  I remember when Jon was about 7, there was this one day that hadn’t gone particularly well.  No, I take that back.  The day had been AWFUL.  First, there was the incident at the bus stop -- some hurtful words from a little girl he thought was his friend.  Then there was the incident at the school playground -- a run-in with a bully two years older and a lot bigger.  And then there was the incident just before bedtime -- a little thing turned into a big thing by an ornery, over-reactive father.

Uh, that would be me.

At the end of the day -- unpleasant though it was -- Jon and I knelt together by his bed to say prayers.  His voice sounded weary, not just tired, as he began the usual litany of thanks: "thank you for my Mom and Dad," "thank you for my brother and sisters," "thank you for my friends," "thank you for our house."

Then he slipped in something new for which to be thankful: "Thank you for nice."

He paused long enough for me to wonder: “‘Thank you for nice?’  Nice what?  Nice family?  Nice dinner?  Nice pants?”  Or maybe I misunderstood.  Since he couldn’t eat potatoes, maybe he was saying "thank you for rice."  Or since his room was decorated with a Mickey Mouse theme, maybe it was "thank you for mice."  Or since he usually fell asleep listening to a pop music radio station, maybe it was "thank you for "ice" -- you know, like in "ice, ice baby."

I was beginning to think Jon was just goofing around with his prayers and I was about to scold him when he continued: "Thank you for not rude."  And then: "Thank you for safe."

Suddenly I understood.  Jon wasn't expressing thanks for specific things because, let's be honest, he didn't have much for which to be specifically thankful that day.  But instead of being thankless, he was generally grateful.  So even if the day was pretty miserable for him, he was grateful for the general notion of "nice."  Although he had at various times in the day felt threatened and insecure, he was grateful to know that there is still such a thing as "safe."  And even though several people -- including his father -- had been rude to him, he was grateful to know that "not rude" was a possibility.

I was touched by the sweetness of his prayer.  And when we got off our knees, I couldn't help but be impressed with the change in his attitude.  He didn't seem to be quite as weary as he was before.  In fact, he seemed calm.  Peaceful.  And hopeful for a better day in the morning.

Which, I'm happy to report, it was.

I don't know for sure if his prayer had anything to do with the improvement in his life the next day.  But his attitude certainly did.  He didn't go to the bus stop with a chip on his shoulder, looking for a chance to get back at the little girl who had been mean to him.  He went looking for "nice," and he found it -- just like he found "not rude" on the playground and "safe" at home.

It occurred to me then that at age 7 Jon had learned one of the most important lessons we can ever learn: that life is pretty much what we make of it.  We're all going to have to swallow a dose of  unpleasantness from time to time.  There isn't any way to avoid it, as far as I can tell.  But we don't have to allow unpleasantness to make our lives . . . you know . . . unpleasant.

And if he figured that out then, he probably gets it even better today at age 19.  No matter what he was praying about the other night, he understands that although adversity can occasionally be so oppressive that it blinds us to life's kinder, gentler possibilities, it can be comforting  to know that somewhere out there, there is hope.  And peace.

  And nice.  Lots of nice.

— © Joseph Walker

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Look What Love Has Done:  Five-Minute Messages to Lift Your Spirit. 

How Can You Mend a Broken Spleen?  Home Remedies for an Ailing World.

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