Choose Joy

Participate joyfully in the sorrows of the world.  We cannot cure the world of sorrow, but we can choose to live in joy.–Joseph Campbell

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There is a documentary about a Holocaust survivor named Gerda Weissmann Klein that I have watched on several occasions with students.  Her story is, like many Holocaust survivor stories, one of inspiration, hope, and even joy.  One of the lines that often comes back to me is when Weissmann Klein specifically addresses how she survived a death march towards the end of World War II.  Despite the fact this march occurred during the height of a brutally harsh winter, Wiessmann Klein was able to survive for a number of reasons, one of which included her ability to “occupy her mind.”

In simple terms, Weissmann Klein was able to take her mind’s focus off the cruel conditions around her.  Rather than brood over the extreme cold, her hunger, her fatigue or any other legitimate complaint, she colorfully described her intentional deliberations that could last all day, such as spending an entire day planning out her next birthday party, even though she had not been able to have one since the Nazi occupation.  However, it wasn’t so much the what of her thoughts, but the fact that she was able to focus/distract her mind away from the pain/discomfort that naturally accompanied her situation.  Instead she intentionally directed her attention towards ideas/notions/thoughts that safely allowed her to “escape” and feel some sense of happiness if only cerebrally.  It is this human ability to occupy one’s mind, or shift the mind’s attention/perspective, that is a powerful take-away from Weissmannn Klein’s story, and I believe is transferable to other, much less brutal situations.   

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Given the news, the pandemic, the  major weather events, and all of the sobering occurrences from the past few years, it is easy to allow our mind to focus on the what-is-wrong-in-the-world, whether you are looking at the big picture or sometimes even your own personal circumstances. I know I can easily get wrapped up in the negative and get a full-steam-on gripe session with the best of them.  On one hand, I know it can be beneficial to get the negativity off-your-chest; on the other hand, I also know that there is danger in dwelling or focusing on it for too long–at least for me.

In a similar manner, I’ve noticed that both positivity and negativity are contagious within myself and among others. If I enter work feeling grumpy, put-off, or focused on some negative happening, I tend to attract and may even catch myself seeking out negativity.  It’s not per se always a conscious choice, it just seems to happen that way.  As soon as I recognize it, I feel badly for having given that gray cloud permission to come along for a ride.  The real danger, it seems to me, is when negativity is left unaddressed.

Negative mindsets have a tendency to spiral out of control.  It may start with something as simple as an accidental spill or mess that throws off the morning routine, followed up by that s-l-o-w driver on the morning commute while listening to frustrating news on the radio.  This may then turn into a later than planned arrival at work, followed by unhappy/unpleasant conversation, followed by a work-related problem in need of addressing for uptenth time, and by the time lunch arrives–which is often a working lunch–negativity can feel as if it is bursting at the seams.  

I think Ms. Weissmann Klein was onto something when it comes to not defaulting to the negative. We must actively and intentionally teach our mind to choose joy.  No, it’s not easy, and yes, it sounds cliché.  However, I do believe that we have a choice of how we respond to our circumstances, but like all skills, it takes practice and thought.

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I think the lyrics to a King and Country song entitled, “Joy,” best encapsulates this thought.  It is oh-so-easy to focus on all of those nightly news headlines that vie for our attention.  Easier still, is to become wrapped up in our personal headlines: illness, death, divorce, finances, job loss/stress, future uncertainties and so forth.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve caught myself in the woe-is-me mind story; it’s so darn easy to do.  Here is what I am learning when I catch myself having fallen prey to pessimism.

Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy. –Thich Nhat Hanh

Believe it or not, the simple act of smiling can be a lightswitch for our mindset.  I first discovered this through running, but I find it just as helpful in most other situations.  Whether it’s my legs and calves aching from the exertion of exercise, or it’s my shoulders and neck tightening in reaction to stress, as soon as I catch myself responding negatively to stress–to the degree possible–I focus on deeper breathing, relaxing the tightened areas, and adding a smile.  I smile at the sense of accomplishment I will feel once I have completed the goal; smile at the fact I am proud of myself for having caught myself slipping into negativity; smile at the fact that my body still has the ability to exercise, work, read–whatever. All of which leads to more smiling because, well, I am smiling–which leads to the release of feel-good hormones.

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I was talking to a sister recently about how we wake up with the best intentions to remain sunny and positive, and then one thing might set off the day, and BOOM, there goes the mindset.  My husband says, however, that is part of living in faith.  He reminds me that it’s not about perfection, but recognizing your imperfections–your humanity–and then trying again. 

In the words of King and Country, “. . . Oh, hear my prayer tonight, I’m singing to the sky/ Give me strength to raise my voice, let me testify . . . The time has come to make a choice

And I choose joy!

I can’t pretend to choose joy in every moment, nor am I not acknowledging the very realness of life, headlines, personal crises and all.  Nevertheless, even in the bad times, sorrows, and heartbreak and loss, I can choose my response, and I can choose to find at least one reason to smile.  

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Like a Prayer

“Why must people kneel down to pray? If I really wanted to pray I’ll tell you what I’d do. I’d go out into a great big field all alone or in the deep, deep woods and I’d look up into the sky—up—up—up—into that lovely blue sky that looks as if there was no end to its blueness. And then I’d just feel a prayer.”–L. M. Montgomery, Anne of the Green Gables

“Ms. Hill, don’t you like doing healthy stuff like hiking and running?”

The 6th grader looked at me with sincerity written across his face.  He was in my homeroom, the group of students with whom I start and end the school day.  By this point in the school year, I have come to know most of the students in this group fairly well, and this particular young man, in spite of his energetic youthfulness, has an uncommonly thoughtful side.  

The group of boys with whom he was talking and joking around at the end of the day, all turned to look at me.  I affirmed that I did indeed like both of those activities, but that I also enjoyed walking or simply being outside equally as much.

Nodding, seemingly with understanding, the same young man further inquired, prodding as to why I liked being outside.  After pausing to gather my thoughts, I explained that it made me feel happy, at peace, and connected to God. 

“So it’s kinda like a prayer, huh?” 

Out of the mouths of babes, or in this case, a 6th grader . . . 

Then, in typical middle-school fashion, the young man’s conversation quickly pivoted back to his buddies, so I returned to my routine end-of-the day tasks.  However, his words remained with me.  In fact, his words have often returned to me on a number of occasions for the past several weeks, especially during moments when I am out-of-doors. 

Scanning through photos of my recent trip to the Blueridge Parkway as well as past out-of-doors experiences, it is clearly evident from the large number of nature-centric images that I relish time spent outside.  From images of wispy cloud billows to leaf-scattered earthen trails; from layers of cerulean blue mountainous peaks to emerald green moss dressing up a boulder, and a great many variations in between, I have collected hundreds of images of Mother Earth. Nonetheless, my fondness of nature is so much more than taking photographs.

Time spent outside is like pouring soothing salve over my weathered soul.  One deep inhalation of fresh air, and I can instantly feel more calm and grounded.  In fact, I have an overall sense of vigor, not just in my body, but in my mind and soul when I am outside in the natural world.  It is as if my whole being comes alive.  

Therefore, it was no surprise for me to learn that numerous research bodies and scientific communities corroborate my personal experiences with nature.  As I scanned through several research pieces published by well-respected groups such as the American Psychological Association, Yale School of  the Environment, Harvard Health, and Scientific Reports, to name a few, there were some variations as to what defines “nature” and how long one needs to spend time in nature to reap the benefits; however, all pointed to the fact that spending time out-of-doors is overall beneficial to good health and mental well being.  Some of the commonly cited perks of spending time in nature include: improved mood, increased cognitive and memory function, reduced stress levels, improved mental health, boosted immune system, and overall reduction of blood pressure and heart rates.  

While I whole-heartedly appreciate and welcome ALL of those benefits, it has been my experience that there are also other, more ethereal, benefits of spending time in nature.  I find that when I bear witness to the brilliant rise of the sun, gaze upward as sunlight dapples through a canopy of leafy green, or catch sight of sunbeams streaming across dark silhouettes of towering tree trunks, naked in their winter respite, I feel a sense of awe and wonder.  The wide array of colors, lines, shapes, sizes, and the symmetry rivals great artists of our time–our world is a marvel!

The more I observe nature, the more curious and inquisitive I become.  How did all of this happen?  How do I, a person so small and insignificant in the face of all this wonder, fit into the grand scheme of the great I AM?  How am I to comprehend Divine Providence and this wondrous creation called earth?  I have no answers, nor do I feel a need for answers.  Rather I am in a state of being–being appreciative and feeling adoration for the great playground that is nature. After all, we are called human beings.

Francis Bacon, often cited as the father of science and ironically attributed to have invented the essay form, is quoted as once stating that God wrote two books: The Scripture and “a second book called creation.”  Time spent with the “second book” offers me tangible, first hand reminders of the greatness of our Creator.  Standing in the presence of a lofty range of mountains, floating across a lakeshore rippling with life, strolling through the rhythmical edge of ocean tide waters, or simply jogging alongside streams and trees on an earthen park trail, my heart and soul are at ease.  There are no timelines, no demands for my attention, no to-do lists, or looming deadlines.  Instead, there is a softness that envelops my soul, a well-worn quilt of comfort, that is available to all.

I suppose my student said it best after all. Spending time in the majesty of nature opens my heart and mind, allowing me to feel as if I have been gathered into an embrace by a loved one happy to see me once more as God’s peace settles over me.  My spirit is more serene, and I feel as if I am part of something larger than myself.  Something so large, I cannot fathom it, but it is something like a prayer.