As I have grown older, I am recognizing more and more that there is a huge difference between happiness and joy. I’ve heard about this difference since I was little, ’cause joy is discussed alot in churchy environments. However, I never really could make a distinction between the two in a real way until the last five or so years.
But now, I KNOW what joy is, and I totally get what Jesus meant when he talked about the peace that passes all understanding. Happiness is about the things that you enjoy in life, the things that bring you pleasure, the pleasant feeling of satisfaction with whatever is currently coming your way. The Office makes me happy. Key lime pie makes me happy. Stupid Facebook memes make me REALLY happy. Joy, on the other hand, is the deep soul resolve to keep waking up every morning with hope, determined to let life dance you moment after moment even in the midst of shitstorms. Joy is the grit, the resilient knowing, that, as Thomas Merton said, “Everything that is, is holy.” Joy is the choice to love what is, even when that “what is” is paradoxical, painful, and hard because you know that there is a redemptive power coursing through life that is vibrating grace into all things….even the terrible and impossible things.
I’ve been thinking alot about my own joy lately, especially because of conversations that I’ve been having with people about the hard things in their lives, the things that God dammit! refuse to be resolved, the pain that won’t go away, the lingering resentments and fears and loss of big dreams. There is clearly so much in the world that threatens to rob us of joy. It takes daily vigilance and intention to hold onto it, to pursue it with abandon.
I remember when I first moved back to Indiana in the process of getting a divorce. My ex and I had split custody of the boys from the start, and twice a week I would send them to him on his designated days. Up until that time I had hardly spent many nights away from my kids other than to attend an occasional conference or travel to visit family. Now, I was regularly sending them away from me, for up to four nights at a time. The pain of having to put my kids in his car, often when they were crying and begging to stay with me, made me absolutely want to die. During those first few months, I would crawl back into my house, lay on the living room floor, sometimes getting myself plastered drunk, because….how had I gotten to this place? This was not how life was supposed to be, not the kind of parent I was supposed to be, even if I had chosen this path and the end of my marriage. It would take all I had to get into bed in an empty, quiet house each night, and then get up each morning and face another breakfast alone, hating this void of my kids not being with me.
And yet, paradoxically, I did not despair. Because while there was this horrible thing that hurt my heart so terribly, there was the possibility of hope. This hope rising, the hope that had made me brave enough to change my life, to listen to my gut for once, to trust myself…told me that I would get through this “I just want to lay down and die” pain of what I was going through with my kids. Each day, something would happen that would grow this hope, and as time went on I realized that I, in fact, was not going to die from pain, and my kids were not going to die from pain, and that everything was going to be OK. I found that I could take pleasure and solace in things even when my heart ached for my children. I began to explore all the things in life that intrigued me even though I still had fears and hurts and unknowns that I had no clue how to deal with. I could laugh and cry, and I can still laugh and cry, at the very same moment. This is joy.
Rumi said, “When you do things from your soul, you feel a river moving in you, a joy.” I totally believe this. When you approach life by listening to the voice in your soul, your gut feeling, your instincts… even when hard, difficult things are required of you… you can sense this joy river within, and it begins to carry you, where fear and despair were once the currents that directed your life.
Too many people are biding their time in life without any joy. Life becomes about checking off the next box, or climbing ladders, or creating external appearances that will garner laud and approval from others whose opinions really don’t matter anyway.
I hate that so much despair exists in the world, even in first world countries like the United States, where we live in relative ease and luxury. How easily we forget that life is freaking magical, and how quickly we forget to be in absolute awe of the amazingness around us! I was talking with a friend the other night about our cell DNA and how I heard a fact about it that made me physically giddy and childishly excited. If you took all of the DNA from al the cells in the average human being and stretched it out end to end in a linear fashion, it could go to the Sun and back 300 times!!! Come on!!! I mean, do you even need to believe in God to not be freaking amazed and overjoyed by the wonder of that?! Doesn’t it dazzle you to imagine how far DNA would stretch if we took all of the genetic material from the 7-something billion people in the world and laid it out end to end?
We lose our joy because of how we frame life, because of the things we choose to focus on, and because we forget to wake up every morning with fresh eyes and open hands, willing to receive whatever life has for us. I am in no way denying that events and people in life can be monstrous, shitty, and, well….evil. But I am so completely soul-convinced that, as the Gospel of John said, the darkness cannot overcome the Light.
I like practical, and I like lists. So, here are listed, based on my life experience, six things that will absolutely cut yourself off from joy in life. So, if you don’t want joy, revel in these. If you want to cultivate joy and peace, strive to fight against these tendencies, however possible.
1. Believe all of the thoughts in your head. In fact, believe that you ARE your thoughts. There is plenty of scientific research out there that shows our brains have a greater affinity for negative thoughts than positive ones. And somehow, we all seem to grow into the belief that whatever comes down our thought pipeline must automatically be true…AND…those thoughts must be us because they came from our brains, didn’t they? Nope! You are not your thoughts, and just because your brain churns out an idea doesn’t mean that you even have to pay attention to it. There is a REAL YOU that is a witnesser, a watcher, of all the thoughts that come into your brain. It takes time and practice to separate the real you from the personality you, but it can happen. I cannot recommend Eckhart Tolle and Byron Katie highly enough for teaching you how to find the REAL YOU within.
2. Refuse to believe that the obstacles are the path. If you think that the only meaningful life is one that is rosy and blemish-free, then you will absolutely never have any joy. The obstacle IS the path! REAL life, the real experience of being human, is being and accepting where you are and what you have now. There can be no other way.
We learn to love and to grow through things not being easy, by not going our way….because….we learn that we don’t have to have things go our way to have joy, to be content, to love well. The obstacles teach us that it is not the externals that make us or break us….it is how we work with those obstacles and let them refine us.
3. Assume that all you see and perceive with your five senses is really all that exists. On one hand, I am very analytical and data-driven. On the other hand, I’m about as woo-wooey as they come. I am absolutely convinced that the cosmos is enchanted, and any time someone tells me its just a matter of time before science figures everything out, I secretly smile to myself and say, “We’ll see.” To me, God, the Divine, the Universe…is a mystery. And, as Rob Bell has said, “mystery is infinitely knowable.” Which means that the spirit in everything will always be enchanted. Try and convince me otherwise.
There are too many things that are unexplainable by just using our “5” senses. Those senses can’t explain love. They can’t explain how people can dream things that actually happen. They can’t explain the spiritual connections we feel with some people in our lives. And they can’t explain JOY.
But, if you think that the only things that actually exist are what you can hear, taste, touch, smell, and see….well, you might be occasionally happy but you’re going to miss out on some of the real mystery of all things and the deepest meaning of existence.
4. Identify strongly with your roles in life. The other day, in the hospital, I randomly had a patient ask me if I was a runner. I was so pleased because, while I run and enjoy the heck out of it, I don’t exactly have a runner’s body and I’m not terribly fast or nimble. So, to have someone recognize just by my body mannerisms that I am a runner simply please me to no end.
However, this identification as a runner made me think of the other roles in life I identify with. I’m a mother, I’m an intellectual, I’m this or I’m that. And while it’s great to have things that we are passionate about in life, over-identifying with anything can ruin joy for us….because we can get lost when the role we identify with is taken away from us. The key to joy is to recognize that we all wear hats, we are all passionate about certain things….but those things are not who we are at our core. It is this recognition that helps us get up off the floor and keep living life when we are wrecked by devastating events. We are so much more than what is happening to us.
5. Stay in relationship with and in close proximity to people who treat you like crap. Nothing, absolutely nothing, will rob you of joy like negative people that tear you down…or even those who make minimal to no effort to encourage you. This is something I’ve discovered in the last several years: life is TOO short and there are too many amazing people out there in the world for you to continue to do life with people who treat you like shit. FOR REAL.
We don’t have to stay in relationship with people just because they’ve been in our lives forever. We don’t have to be in relationship with people just because they are family. We don’t have to stay in relationship with people just because we feel guilty or codependent or lonely. Necessary Endings by Henry Cloud – go buy this book and read it.
If you want joy in your life, seek out the people who are joyful. Seek out the people who notice your faults and weaknesses, but would much rather talk about and spotlight your strengths. Seek out the people who are literally willing to go in the trenches with you; not the ones who keep telling you why you’re such an idiot that you ended up in the trenches in the first place. Seek out the people that make you a priority, not an option. Follow the people that spread joy in their wake.
6. Avoid pain at all cost. This is one of those, “trust me on this” things. I don’t know why the universe is set up like this. God didn’t ask me for my input when They were making the rules. But, for some reason, pain so very often comes before joy. I’m not a huge fan of pain…but I’m gradually learning not to avoid it because I know that when handled properly, pain is often the gateway to joy. When we choose to avoid pain, emotional and sometimes physical, we may remain safe….we may remain comfortable…but there’s a very great chance that our lives will be much less rich and joyful than they could be if we had faced our pain head-on.
I would much rather live a life drunk on joy and be thought of as a fool than to plod through life complaining and griping and feeling fatalistic and hopeless while being considered wise by the world.
To quote Rumi again…. “