I recently asked on Instagram what topics my readers would like me to write about now that I’m blogging again. I got a lot of really wonderful responses that I can’t wait to explore here together. But one suggestion really stood out to me, and it was on the topic of joy.
What brings you joy?
I’ve sat with that question ever since it came into my dm box. I’ve sat with it and I’ve thought about it and I knew what story I wanted to share with you all.
A story of things falling apart. Of feeling really, really sad about it. And what it taught me about joy.
About five years ago, I was in a very different place mentally, emotionally and spiritually. It started around the time that my first son was born but then continued right through when I had my second. It’s clear to me now that I was struggling with some significant post partum depression with both births, but even more than that, I was struggling to understand how to be happy when things were hard.
I had a good life full of blessings back then, just as I do now. But everything felt so overwhelming. We were struggling financially, being a mom felt hard to me in every way, we were trying to navigate some really difficult relationships, and Mike and I were both so confused about what we wanted in life. It felt like we couldn’t get a grasp on anything.
One winter day, our furnace died. We have a gas heated water boiler furnace system, which means that a gas flame heats up water in our furnace and pushes it through the baseboards in our home to keep us warm. Something about something failed and all I really remember is that the furnace died, blowing soot all over our basement ceiling and leaving us without heat in what was a very cold point in winter.
It was just one big thing on top of a list of other things ranging from small to big that felt sad and hard and overwhelming in my life at the time. And then we were told the cost to replace our specific kind of furnace – 7 grand. 7….thousand…dollars.
As we are now, we were living solely on my husband’s teacher salary with young kids and not a lot of money for “extras” like, you know, a new furnace.
I remember crawling into bed at one point, in my bedroom that was freezing in temperature and torn apart so that the repairman could get to the base boards, and not knowing how I was ever going to get up again. I know that sounds dramatic – it feels dramatic for me to type. But the truth is that all I could think about were the ways that life felt hard and impossible and the inner workings of my head and my heart turned to ice along with the water in our baseboards. I was immobilized by anger and confusion and fear.
I’ve learned so much since that day, and none of the lessons I’ve learned have come easily or quickly. It turns out, it’s easier for me to be the type of person that wallows rather than rises. It’s easier for me to allow difficult situations or situations that simply disappoint my expectations to carry me away into a sea of anxiety, confusion and frustration.
But slowly, over time and with the help of good people, good resources, and a God who has been good to me through it all, I’m starting to see my problem for what it is, and learning how to grow through it.
I’ve got a joy problem, and it’s probably not what you think.
I want joy, just like I’m going to assume you want joy. It sounds like such a good thing to want, right? Choose joy! the t-shirts say. Choose joy! the bumper stickers say. Choose joy! the old lady at church says. Choose joy! the farmhouse sighn that hangs in the store, says.
What happens, though, when you keep trying to choose joy but life throws you anger? frustration? confusion? disappointment? anxiety?
One important thing I’ve learned about myself in the past year is that I feel anxious when I don’t acknowledge where I am, only where I want to be. I acknowledge what I want – joy! happiness! good things! And you better believe I try and choose them. I do the things. I say the prayers. I jump through the mental, emotional and spiritual hoops to get there, too. “I choose you!” I cry out. “So why don’t I feel joy???”
I don’t feel joy, I’ve learned, because I don’t first feel pain.
I know, I know…Lying in bed, moaning about all the crummy things that are happening in my life might sound like I was feeling pain – I know it sure looked like it – but truly facing and feeling our pain is not the same thing as wallowing in our sorrow.
For me, it’s easier to accept things factually before I ever accept things emotionally. For example, I accepted the fact that our furnace was broken and needed repaired. I called the repairman. I reached for the invoice he handed me on the way out. I knew what needed to be done and I went to work trying to do it. But emotionally, I never truly acknowledged what I was feeling. I just went straight to anxiety and overwhelm.
I never allowed myself to acknowledge that I was angry that this was happening. It felt like just one more thing in a long list of problems that we were facing at the moment. I felt betrayed. I felt like I had been told my whole life how “good” God was, and yet my life was not feeling very good at the moment. So what did that mean? What did that say about God? Was he not very good after all?
Or was he just not being good to me?
That last one felt the most true, and was the one that brought me to my bed that day.
I couldn’t reconcile in my head and my heart the two realities – the reality of what I was facing and the faith I was supposed to be feeling. The two seemed to stand in opposition, and I didn’t know what to do with it.
But I wasn’t acknowledging all of those thoughts and feelings that day, therefore I couldn’t process, heal and move forward. Instead, I was stuck in my anxiety.
It’s funny, because I used to think I felt anxious or sad because of the lists of things I was reciting over and over in my head: the list of hard things I was facing, the list of worries, the list of things I needed to accomplish, etc. But in reality, rehearsing a list wasn’t the problem, it was simply the way I distracted myself from what really needed faced. The true source of my anxious feelings was not acknowledging what was really happening and what I was really feeling.
And anxiety is simply unnamed emotion.
Anxiety is also energy.
Our bodies don’t lie, even when we try to lie to ourselves. We might be able to avoid facing our emotions, but our body can’t. While our mind is busy swirling with thoughts and unnamed emotions, our body will be busy using the energy of anxiety to try and tell us something important about our experience.
Now, looking back, I can see what my body was trying to tell me. I can see that my anxiety, frustration and anger were like a flashing sign, pointing me to look deeper, to go inward. LOOK HERE! they were trying to tell me.
The good news is that healing can come at any time. I might not have been willing or able to face those things then, but I have since and I’ve learned so, so much. About everything. About myself. About God. About anxiety and joy and how we have to first look at the hard things before we can rise to experience the good things.
One thing that I’ve discovered about what causes me to struggle in this department is understanding that I have a transactional view of life and God. I didn’t realize that I was operating under a mental, emotional and spiritual point of view that says if I put good in then I will get good out. And I think if we take about two seconds to really think about that we will quickly see how that can fall apart in real life. The question – “Why do bad things happen to good people?” That’s a transactional statement. It operates on the assumption of merit. And when that doesn’t happen, we tend to really struggle with the meaning of it all and spiral into an existential crisis of faith.
Sometimes you give relationships, life and experiences your absolute best and they still fall apart. People still hurt you. Work still feels hard. Life doesn’t go the way you expected. These things don’t happen because of us. They happen because we live in this world as humans among other humans.
Things aren’t happening to us – they are just happening.
That is a really, really important distinction. Everything that happens in our day and in our life isn’t about us. It’s just happening. I know that is such a wild thought and one that I can fight tooth and nail against because it FEELS so personal. It’s MY LIFE, after all! But learning to separate ourself from our experiences is the first step to finding the freedom to examine our personal thoughts and feelings about our experience.
I’ve learned that it’s all a process.
Things come together, things fall apart. I’m tempted to fall apart right along with them. But then I slow my mind and slow my heart. I allow myself the space to first acknowledge that this isn’t happening to me, it’s simply happening. And then I acknowledge the truth of what I’m thinking and feeling. I name it. I say it out loud. I write it down.
We all have to first face truth before we can move forward in truth.
And one really, really important truth is that we can face hard things. I could have faced the broken furnace that day and I could have faced the difficult things I was thinking and feeling. But because I didn’t, I stopped all healing and forward movement in it’s tracks.
But fortunately for me, and fortunately for you, another important truth is that it turns out, God really is good. And we really can come to this lesson and experience this truth at any point in our journey. Because they other thing I’ve learned is that God isn’t transactional. He isn’t waiting on us to be good enough so that he can start to be good back.
His goodness is not found or revealed in the ease or comfort that we find in our current situation. His goodness is a truth that both infuses into and transcends beyond the details of our daily life. He is good amidst the hard situations, but also, his goodness points us to look beyond them.
If you are someone who enjoys reading a good Bible story, check out the story of the temptation of Jesus in the New Testament and read it in this context. Jesus was being offered something as a transaction: you do this for me, and I’ll do this for you. You scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours.
Time and time again he rejected this model. That is not what he came to earth to do. He didn’t come to balance scales or settle scores or give good things to good people who earned it or deserved it based on our understanding of goodness and merit. He came to offer life, and offer it abundantly. Even in the dessert of our lives. Even when we are broken and spiritually starving and emotionally wrecked.
God is not a God of transactions, but a God of transformation.
I don’t know why hard things happen; I wish they didn’t. All I know is that we have the ability to face the hard things in our life, be honest about them, learn from them, grow through them, and ultimately, choose to see the joy that is all around us.
This isn’t about bubble baths and massages or fake happy smiles plastered on top of unhappy hearts. This is about knowing that there is ALWAYS the good and the bad in our life. There is ALWAYS a choice in how we respond. There is ALWAYS space to explore our difficult thoughts and emotions.. There is room to both feel the hurt and the pain while allowing the truth of God’s goodness to be both with you in it, and transcend beyond it.
Joy isn’t the absence of suffering and sorrow. Joy is the truth that is found within them.
You can’t just feel sad and tell yourself to “choose joy” and then feel joyful. It doesn’t work that way. Because your thoughts don’t match how you are truly feeling, this logic won’t work and will ultimately cause more harm than good. The only thing that works, it’s starting at the beginning and going til the end. You have to start with acknowledging what is happening, following by facing the truth of what you think and how you feel about what is happening and THEN (and only then), remind yourself of the truth of what you believe and make choices that reflect those deep and grounded beliefs.
This process is one of my greatest struggles and currently one of my greatest teachers in life. I fight facing my true thoughts and emotions with everything I’ve got. I don’t want to go there. I just want good things to happen so that I can have good thoughts and emotions. And when that doesn’t happen, it’s easy for me to just shut down. Or, I’ll tell myself what I think I SHOULD be thinking and feeling (like “choose joy!”), only to wind up really confused, anxious and feeling shame.
So here is where I’m at, friends. I’ve come to realize that there is one simple thing that brings me joy – doing the daily mental, emotional and spiritual work of recognizing the joy that is a lived experience, and that experience includes both happiness and sorrow. I know that sounds simple and perhaps a little bit trite, but it is honestly one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life. At the risk of over simplifying things, let me break down what I’m telling you into steps:
- I experience something hard OR I simply wake up with a mind that is full of thoughts that center on worries, fears or anxiety.
- I take a moment to look at that hard thing/feeling for what it is. I notice the emotions that come up. I ask myself what really bothers me, what I’m really afraid of, and what I really want.
- I remind myself that it is ok to feel how I feel. I remind myself that I don’t need to control how I feel about the situation, but I am responsible for how I respond.
- I remind myself that I am not this hard situation. I remind myself that I can face hard things. I remind myself that I can figure this out. I remind myself that I am fully equipped and capable to respond to this situation in a way that honors my beliefs and represents the best version of myself. I remind myself that hard things are NOT happening to me or because of me, but that they are simply happening. I remind myself that God is with me. Literally with me – as close as my next breath. I remind myself that the point of all this is not for me to fix anything, but to simply choose my next step. And then my next. And then my next.
- And then, I choose.
This process, although simple, is not easy. And although it is basic in form, it is anything but basic in results. It’s this process that has shown me how to move from a transactional view of life, to a transformative way of living. A transactional point of view caused me to hang my happiness on situations changing for the better. A transformative point of view allows me to see joy, regardless of the situation.
I am not perfect at this. Far, far from it.
But when you ask me what brings me joy, I am honestly learning to say – the practice of being human. The practice of seeing life in all it’s beauty and all it’s hardship and realizing that God is in it all. I do face daily fears and frustrations, but by being able to truly face them, I’m freed to see the many ways that, as The Lord’s Prayer says, we can see God’s goodness “on earth as it is in Heaven.” Not through the perfection of our day, but through the power of our gaze to look at and beyond our life.
Some things can’t be fixed, friends. But all things can be faced. Because nothing can separate us from God’s love; the love that infuses our life with power and grace and wisdom and wholeness and healing and his very literal presence.
And yes. Even joy.