Joy is a fascinating emotion. It often springs up in us at surprising times. There is something of a wellspring vibe to it, as if it bubbles up in us with little bearing to our circumstance in life or particular experience. As C. S. Lewis notes,
“I call it Joy. ‘Animal-Land’ was not imaginative. But certain other experiences were… The first is itself the memory of a memory. As I stood beside a flowering currant bush on a summer day there suddenly arose in me without warning, and as if from a depth not of years but of centuries, the memory of that earlier morning at the Old House when my brother had brought his toy garden into the nursery. It is difficult or find words strong enough for the sensation which came over me; Milton’s ‘enormous bliss’ of Eden (giving the full, ancient meaning to ‘enormous’) comes somewhere near it. It was a sensation, of course, of desire; but desire for what?…Before I knew what I desired, the desire itself was gone, the whole glimpse… withdrawn, the world turned commonplace again, or only stirred by a longing for the longing that had just ceased… In a sense the central story of my life is about nothing else… The quality common to the three experiences… is that of an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction. I call it Joy, which is here a technical term and must be sharply distinguished both from Happiness and Pleasure. Joy (in my sense) has indeed one characteristic, and one only, in common with them; the fact that anyone who has experienced it will want it again… I doubt whether anyone who has tasted it would ever, if both were in his power, exchange it for all the pleasures in the world. But then Joy is never in our power and Pleasure often is.”
The Shape of My Early Life
Joy is distinct from pleasure and happiness. It is an abundance, a bliss, an immeasurable gratitude for the privilege of being. It isn’t meant to be ignored, but embraced, relished, cherished. Not as a byproduct of some other experience, but in itself.
As Mary Oliver says,
“If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy, don’t hesitate. Give in to it. There are plenty of lives and whole towns destroyed or about to be. We are not wise, and not very often kind. And much can never be redeemed. Still life has some possibility left. Perhaps this is its way of fighting back, that sometimes something happened better than all the riches or power in the world. It could be anything, but very likely you notice it in the instant when love begins. Anyway, that’s often the case. Anyway, whatever it is, don’t be afraid of its plenty. Joy is not made to be a crumb. (Don’t Hesitate)”
Swan, Poems and Prose Poems
If you should be lucky enough to feel joy bubbling up, savor it.
When you get a group of kids together, and ask them their favorite color, there is always that one kid who picks rainbow. I admire this kid.
I was never this kid.
I’ve always played by the rules, even if it caused me tons of angst trying to somehow weigh my fondness for the blue of a cloudless summer day, or the lavender of a jacaranda tree, or buttercup yellow, or soft blush pink. How do people pick these kind of things? Favorites?
But the rainbow kid stretches his arms wide and says, ‘I’ll pick them all, all the colors of the rainbow.’ This kid embraces color, life, variety, and has little concern with limits and rules. Gusto. Zest. Vibrancy. These are the attributes of this kid.
I hope, but cannot confirm, that I wasn’t the kid who told him to pick just one. Who told him rainbow wasn’t a color, and that picking rainbow was like picking infinite wishes from a genie. Against the rules. Or that kind of teacher for that matter. Because sometimes we are meant to throw our arms wide and say, ‘All of it. I love all of it. Color itself. How wonderful we live in a world of color.’
(I’ve settled in on answering periwinkle because I adore that color, it was my grandmother’s favorite color, and I adored her, and it has a wonderful sounding name that tickles me.)
We’ve always done it this way. Have you heard this? Said it? Maybe it’s time to look at ‘it’ with fresh eyes.
The same is true for the way we act, think, believe. Take a look. Is there anything there that is worth a reconsideration?
As we age, it’s easy to fall into ruts, easy to believe our way is the right way, easy to assume any problems are the other person’s fault.
Self-reflection, hard, soul-deep reflection, the kind of reflection that might be filled with regret and tears and epiphanies and apologies, is a good tune-up for our inner selves. Without it, there will be no progress.
Do you have any difficult people in your life? Chances are you can’t force them to be less toxic, but there are steps you can take to be less bothered by the encounter. In this article by Christine Carter, she suggests, among other things, that showing mercy to this difficult person will rebound to you:
Anne Lamott defines mercy as radical kindness bolstered by forgiveness, and it allows us to alter a communication dynamic, even when we are interacting with someone mired in anger or fear or jealousy. We do this by offering them a gift from our heart. You probably won’t be able to get rid of your negative thoughts about them, and you won’t be able to change them, but you can make an effort to be a loving person. Can you buy them a cup of coffee? Can you hold space for their suffering? Can you send a loving-kindness meditation their way?
Forgiveness takes this kindness to a whole new level. I used to think I couldn’t really forgive someone who’d hurt me until they’d asked for forgiveness, preferably in the form of a moving and remorseful apology letter.
But I’ve learned that to heal ourselves we must forgive whether or not we’re asked for forgiveness, and whether or not the person is still hurting us. When we do, we feel happier and more peaceful. This means that you might need to forgive the other person at the end of every day—or, on bad days, every hour. Forgiveness is an ongoing practice, not a one-time deal.
When we find ways to show mercy to even the person who has cost us sleep and love and even our well-being, something miraculous happens. “When we manage a flash of mercy for someone we don’t like, especially a truly awful person, including ourselves,” Anne Lamott writes, “we experience a great spiritual moment, a new point of view that can make us gasp.”
Here’s the real miracle: Our mercy boomerangs back to us. When we show radical kindness, forgiveness, and acceptance—and when we tell the truth in even the most difficult relationship—we start to show ourselves those things. We realize that we can love and forgive and accept even the most terrible aspects of our own being, even if it is only for a moment. We start to show ourselvesthe truth, and this makes us feel free.
Perhaps you can show that difficult person mercy today.
One of the lessons from my elementary school days that still stands out in memory was flower dissection day. I was astonished with the intricacy in a flower. Where before I saw just a flower, now I saw intricate systems for reproduction, male and female organs, color and smell to attract pollinators, a whole interconnection of systems. And this was just what I could see with my naked eye. Later I would discover the microscopic diversity and complexity of plant life. But then as a little 8 year old girl, I was gobsmacked with the complexity of it all.
Isn’t it all miraculous?
These days I need to stop and remember to let my much older self still stand in awe of the complexities of life. The interconnectedness of creation in all its abundance, from the dung beetle pushing its treasured clomp up a hill backwards with its hind feet, to the elements swirling together in a once in a generation storm.
Standing in awe requires both decentering ourselves and paying attention, absorbing both the tiniest details and the grand ones, and realizing our small place in the midst of it all. And even we humans are an amazing complexity of systems and organisms functioning together to keep us alive, made up of around 30 trillion human cells, and 39 trillion non-human microbial cells living on and in us. Our own body is essentially made up of many separate ecosystems. It is staggering.
Faith is not a contest. It’s not praying louder or more eloquently for all to see. It’s not giving or fasting for show.
It’s an internal, deeply personal thing between you and God. It’s a dark of the night hope, and a bright green day joy. It the bulb pushing its way stubbornly through the soil with the promise of spring. It’s holding on to the values you know to be right even in the face of temptation, or expedience, or doubt.
Lent is a time for us to dig deep into our souls, to reconnect with God and each other, to remind ourselves of who and whose we are, and then live out that truth.
We can’t choose everything in life, but we can choose what kind of person we want to be.
As we deal with storms across the country and unprecedented blizzard watches here in Southern California, consider the importance of rain. Rain can be like encouragement, bringing nourishment and rebirth to dry parched land. It can promote an abundance of life and energy.
But, in excess, rain can cause flooding and landslides. It can sweep people away into rushing water and leave the landscape devastated.
Our words have the same power. We can be supportive and encouraging, fostering life and vitality in those we engage with. Or we can be harsh and critical, pessimistic and judgmental. Our words can both heal and wound. Our choice.
We can choose to be encouraging and supportive, rather than bleak and pessimistic.
We can avoid being the person who rains on someone else’s parade.
With the news this week that former President Jimmy Carter has entered home hospice care, many people have been sharing stories about his accomplishments in office—his efforts for peace, his push for environmental stewardship, and his efforts toward energy independence, among others.
But his most striking accomplishments perhaps are what he has done since he lost his re-election bid. Rather than retreat to Georgia and exit the public arena, he began building houses for the poor, and working for democracy—a principle he firmly believed in—around the world, and standing up for women’s rights, even when that stand conflicted with his religion, and working to eradicate disease and so on. He has never stopped showing up to make a difference.
In a world that has grown more cynical and jaded since his entry into the public spotlight, he continues to show us what it means to walk the walk, quietly, humbly, and without fanfare. Here, surely, is a good and faithful servant of God.
Have you ever stopped to consider how many of your decisions are controlled by fear? Or how others may attempt to control you by exploiting those fears?
Fear is a useful emotion. It can help us avoid danger and give us a boost of adrenaline to combat foes. But bathing in it, day in and day out, as some news sources would have us do, is a recipe for disease. Our bodies simply aren’t equipped to be in a constant state of fight or flight.
One of the answers must be to consider the reality of what makes you afraid. Is someone telling you stories to whip up your emotions? Is it true? If someone is manipulating you, you must find a way to step back and give yourself some perspective. Consider other sources. Evaluate the data. Analyze what will happen if the dreaded event comes true. Find physical ways to give your body comfort.
Ask yourself, what is this person trying to make me fear, and what are they trying to get me to do. What’s in it for them? That analysis will help give us the tools to determine if the fear is real or if someone is manipulating us.
We can buck up and deal with real threats. But imagined threats, particularly when someone is trying to keep you afraid to manipulate your actions, requires your own intervention.
When I was a girl, text books used the term ‘melting pot’ to describe America as if everyone were thrown into one big pot and all the differences were boiled out, with America becoming just one big homogenous pot of glop. But better metaphors have popped up in the years since. Such as a salad bowl:
We don’t need a melting pot in this country, folks. We need a salad bowl. In a salad bowl, you put in the different things. You want the vegetables – the lettuce, the cucumbers, the onions, the green peppers – to maintain their identity. You appreciate differences.
But perhaps my favorite is Jimmy Carter’s:
We become not a melting pot but a beautiful mosaic. Different people, different beliefs, different yearnings, different hopes, different dreams.
I love the idea of a mosaic to define America—beauty in all the bits and pieces, each a small distinct individual unit but also a necessary part of a larger picture.
No matter how you describe it, America at its best, living up to its ideals, is stronger because of its diversity, the unique perspectives, the mix of voices, backgrounds, cultures, and traditions.