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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Becoming

“To be what we are, and to become what we are capable of becoming, is the only end of life.”–Robert Louis Stevenson

Standing on the crest of a small hill, my senses were heightened.  I could feel the weight and seemingly taste the moisture in the air. Scents of earth, rain, and floral encompassed me.  Dewy variations of pink, red, and coral stood out in contrast to the overcast dawn. Meanwhile, the unmistakable melody of creekwater rushing over rock, bed, and banks provided additional ambiance to the unfolding morning. There could be no mistaking it, this was a brief interlude before the showers once more resumed.

Down the hill I trotted, past the pristine rows of roses and on towards my companion for the next hour or so, Four Pole Creek, or “Four,” as I have come to think of it.  

“The more I run, the more I want to run, and the more I live a life conditioned and influenced and fashioned by running.  And the more I run, the more I am certain I am heading for my real goal:  to become the person I am.”–George Sheehan

Hello Friend.  My heavens, but you are swollen today, full as a tick bug, as my Papaw used to say, from the feast of overnight rain.  It’s good to see you looking lively today.  Your rhythmic song will be a welcome distraction from the noise in my mind.  

You see, a stunning new realization has recently taken root in my mind.  It whispers conspiratorially to me that I have reached a point in my life in which the years ahead are more likely to be less than the years I have lived.  What am I to do with this information, I ask you?  It is such a staggering revelation.

What’s more, my aqueous friend, the image reflected in my bathroom mirror no longer matches the image in my head.  There are these white hairs at my left temple and even more sprinkled throughout the parting of my hair.  Likewise, there are lines, especially when I smile, that run from the top of my cheekbone down towards my jaw line!   Tiny versions of those lines romp across the top of my lip, corners of my eyes, and all along my forehead.  How am I to be with this?

It seems I am not the only one changing.  I keep running across pictures from previous years in which family and friends look different.  They look incredibly young in those pictures–like unfledged, inexperienced youth.  I don’t recall that image.  In my mind, they are ever the responsible, mature, and wise people who never age, but remain frozen in time–never too young or old. 

Oh, and Four, there are all of these nagging aches and pains.  They niggle me awake during the night or flare up in the middle of work.  Sometimes, I down right hurt all over, and I can’t determine the cause.  However, I can tough out these minor hurts.  I can.  It’s the suffering of my loved ones that trouble me more.

I see my loved ones injured, battle-scarred, aging, and/or struggling.  You see, I want to help, to make them better, to help them feel whole again.  Even more than their ailing physical beings, I want to offer peace to the emotional wars waging within their minds and hearts.  I try.  I do try to help in small ways, but I am not a doctor–I don’t even play one on TV.  Thus, at times, I feel limited in what I can do to ease their burdens, pains, and sorrows.  

Still, it encourages me to see you full of vitality.  For a couple of weeks, you have been waning.  Your shallow flow lacked its usual energy and zip.  It is good to see your waters revived once more.

By the way, did you take care of the terrapin that I sent your way recently?  It was headed away from the safety of boundaries of your banks towards the traffic rolling alongside you.  I picked it up, even though it seemed offended by my action, and placed it carefully within your borders.  Hopefully, you were able to redirect its journey to safer ground.

As I was taking this picture, a couple days later, I was able to catch this image of a walnut falling into the water from the tree above.

Back to my original point, Four.  Have you any thoughts, ideas, or insight you can offer?  It seems as if your soundscape is whispering commentary.  Perhaps, if I quiet my head, I will hear it. 

“Life is a lively process of becoming.”–Douglas MacArthur

Four, I can’t help but notice that you have more riffles, rapids, and runs today. It’s nature’s way of breathing oxygen into your waters.  In return, your waters can give support to the life in, below, and around you.  

Earlier in the week, your waters were different.  They slowly glided from one pool to another. Of course, it was quite hot outside.  I couldn’t help but laugh at the number of neighborhood dogs splashing around or sitting in the cool shallows of those pools.  You remain ever the friend to the creatures in need, no matter levels and speed of your waters. 

 I have to ask though, do you ever hurt? Do pollutants irritate you?  What about those pesky people trying to reconfigure earth around you in order to build in the name of progress? Does that cause you pain as the drainage of rainwater and groundwater shift, ultimately influencing the levels and speed of your flow?  Do you mourn for your former self or for the forested neighbors that must have once lined your banks?  Regardless of those things for which you cannot control, it seems to me that you keep going, keep giving, keep supporting life to those in need of water.

Your waters are gathered from different sources. There are times, like today, when your waters are swift, becoming deep and darkened with the mud of debris, rocks, and earth.  Other times, like this past week, your waters are nearly still as you become shallow and more clear.  No matter what you are becoming, though, Dear Four, you remain ever Four Pole Creek, part of the Ohio River Watershed that feeds into the grand Mississippi River, and empties into the Gulf of Mexico flowing into the Atlantic Ocean.  Along the way, some of your water is evaporated into the air, cooled, condensed, and eventually returned to the earth–molecule by sweet molecule–a single droplet that is all part of the larger body of creation.

Four, in spite of your continuous changes, from the levels of your water, to the shapes you take; from the color of your waters, to the speed at which it flows; and from the lives that your waters support, to the beauty you offer the landscape, you are constantly evolving, ever changing, and continuously becoming.  Yet, you remain a creek, one creek in the great cycle of water.

“By being yourself, you put something wonderful into this world that was not there before.”–Edwin Elliot

Like you, Four, I am changing, and so is the life around me.  Some of my loved ones have flowed on to their heavenly shores, while many others remain bound to the earthly waters of life.  Like you, no matter my shape, my hurts, the gray at my temples, the lines of my face, or the pace at which I move . . . I am still me.  I will remain me–becoming, evolving, and adapting to the changes within and all around.

One day, I will dance among the ether of your molecules.  Together, joined by those who slipped ahead, we will become part of the Great cycle–the ever more and ever was. 

Thank you, Four.  Your song returned me to the hill of roses.  Back to where I started.  This running cycle is complete.  You were a fine companion.