When upon life’s billows you are tempest-tossed,
When you are discouraged, thinking all is lost,
Count your many blessings, name them one by one,
And it will surprise you what the Lord hath done.
On first reading, and upon first hearing the song sung, many may be tempted to simply roll their eyes and think that it’s a shallow and simplistic. After all, when something horrible happens in life, it’s very difficult to think about anything else except whatever is paining us. And perhaps, in extreme circumstances, the song may not be a whole lot of comfort.
The point of the song is not to imagine that somehow the problems don’t exist; rather, it is designed to help us put our circumstances into a larger perspective. It is designed to force us to take a more realistic look at our lives and the ordinary sorts of stresses that pile on us as we go about our days: the stresses of work, projects and fixes that need to be done around the house, piles of stuff that need to be attended to, minor illnesses in ourselves, our children, our spouses. It’s like the drip, drip, drip of a leaky faucet that never goes away and there are times that the multitude of little, ordinary things get to the place that they overwhelm us, making us want to run away and hide from it all—except that wherever we went to hide, we’d still be there. We feel like we don’t have enough time, enough energy, enough desire to get it all done.
And yet, if we stop a moment and try to think about the positive things in our lives—admittedly hard when we feel snowed under by all the things we need to do that are pelting us like drops of water in a storm—we may discover that “counting our blessings” can help us put the multiple, but minor stresses of our lives into better perspective. If we have a lot to do at work, at least we have a job. We can be thankful for our families, that we have them and our friends. We can take comfort in the fact that we have some of the things that are annoying us: the cable went out, and now I have to wait for the cable guy to come out. But then again, we have TV and cable, rather marvelous bits of technology that most of the time we take for granted. I may have problems with the plumbing, but hey, a hundred years ago, most people would be using an outhouse and boiling water on a wood stove so they could sponge bathe once a week. And so it goes.
Johnson Oatman, Jr., the songwriter, lived a mostly ordinary life. He was licensed to preach in Methodist churches, but his primary career was in the mercantile business and later as an administrator of a large insurance company in New Jersey. He was married, with three daughters. Born in 1856, he died in 1922. During the course of his life, he wrote more than 5000 hymns, of which “Count your Blessings” is but one.