Seeking a Joy-filled Life

“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to learn to love the questions themselves.” Rainer Maria Rilke

The universe has a cruel sense of humor, constantly reminding us we are not in control. To underscore this lesson, life is filled with moments of intense pain – physical pain that reminds us of our own mortality, and emotional pain that aches so badly we can’t breathe. Fear and sadness, anger and frustration, as well as disappointment and angst, weave themselves through our days sometimes so tightly we can’t move.

And yet, as conflicting as it sounds, when we lean into these darkest moments, we have the opportunity to find joy. Yes, find joy. Some spiritual practices believe that when we embrace the gift of suffering, we gain a heightened ability to delight in even the most simple moments in our lives. Within this recognition, joy, in its purest form, occurs.

Arriving to this space, though, and not getting hung up on the suffering or even the joy, requires patience and practice; when we finally achieve this balance, we are truly in the moment. It has taken me quite awhile to figure out this secret, and I certainly have not achieved some sort of euphoric state where I transcend all emotions. Instead, I have shifted my perspective to sincerely seek joy in even the most unimaginable moments of life. It isn’t easy, but it is important.

Search for the lesson: For six years, I have worked on living intentionally, on living an authentic, present life. These six years, as well as the decades that preceded them have been filled with traumatic moments, disquieting moments that have filled me with fear and uncertainty. Since December of 2019, though, some of the darkest moments in my life have occured as I have helped my daughter navigate stage four brain cancer. To say this has been my greatest test as a human is a gross understatement. It has, however, taught me a lot about who I am as a woman.

Sitting by Elizabeth’s bed in the neuro ICU at the Ohio State James Cancer Center, I repeatedly asked, and honestly, I sometimes begged, “What am I supposed to learn from this experience? How will these moments make me a better person?” If I’m not careful, I miss the lesson, distracted by the emotion of the moment: fear, angst, sadness. To live authentically, I have to intentionally seek the lesson.

Understanding often comes in snippets, when I least expect it. I may be talking to a college student working through his or her own journey, and my own experiences offer them solace or steps of action. Sometimes clarity emerges while I’m listening to my pastor deliver his weekly sermon, and my experience connects on a much deeper level. If I focus on the lessons, the difficult moments in life serve a distinct purpose.

Feel the emotion in its purest form: One of the hardest steps in seeking a joy-filled life is recognizing the emotion as it occurs. For someone like me who would rather support others as they experience their own emotions, identifying my feelings, especially in the moment, is hard. For example, if I feel lonely, I often fill that moment by finding people with whom I can connect. Instead of feeling the loneliness and identifying the root of the loneliness or my fear of feeling lonely, I fill it quickly.

Over the last few years, I have made strides in recognizing and feeling my emotions, even the ones that scare me or make me extremely uncomfortable. This has been one of the hardest exercises in my personal journey of untangling myself. Often, the emotion from which I run has a negative memory, or memories, associated with it. However, with practice, I am learning that every emotion is fleeting and based on my perception. Understanding this, and feeling the emotion as a fleeting emotion, is liberating.

Give thanks for the moment: Regardless of what is happening, giving thanks for it is important. Gratitude for even the most difficult moments reflect a life of presence – of living in the moment. As humans, we often don’t stop to think about each moment, and as a result, we end up feeling like life is happening to us. By giving thanks for what is happening, even the moments we wish would simply slip quickly into a bad memory, we are recognizing the power of being alive. Gratitude for each moment allows us to experience the emotion and to see the lesson the universe is teaching us.

Living a joy-filled life is not impossible, but it really takes intentional work. I often fail in this quest. I get caught up in the emotion of the moment. I forget to breathe – to see a purpose – to acknolwedge the natural ebb and flow of life – to embrace the biological rythm the universe offers us. With practice, experiencing joy most of the time, even in the hardest of seasons, is possible. #MakeRoomForJoy

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#MakeRoomForJoy

No one ever said life is fair, my father repeatedly reminded me every time I moaned about the fairness of household chores, the demand for excellence on my schoolwork, or having to spend my own hard earned baby sitting money to buy my first pair of leather Converse shoes. After all, didn’t he know how many hours I had to watch the neighbors’ three children at $1.00 an hour to buy those coveted shoes?

At thirteen, life really did not seem fair.

Decades later, my adult life continues to remind me of this deeply rooted childhood lesson. In that apparent “unfairness,” though, I had developed a resilient, bulldozer mentality – one that has served me well. With his matter-of-fact observation about life, my father had relayed expectations that I would do what I needed to overcome obstacles – no matter the magnitude of the roadblocks.

More importantly, my early, pre-adolescent understanding that life is never fair, and that it actually contains disappointment and even heartache, has instilled in me a great desire to celebrate the goodness that does exist – even in the midst of unfairness. When I take time to appreciate the wonder of each day, life doesn’t seem so unfair after all. That philosophy, however, isn’t always easy.

In 2014, my oldest child, Elizabeth, endured a 10-hour, awake craniotomy to remove a benign tumor in her left temporal lobe. Since then, frequent MRIs have monitored the small remnant of the tumor the surgeon had to leave behind. At the end of 2019, though, the neurologist gently, yet firmly, informed us the MRI revealed a new, aggressive tumor that seemed to come out of nowhere. Within a month, my 27-year-old shifted from planning her wedding to fighting for her life.

Diagnosed with stage four brain cancer during the holidays, the past five months have thrown massive hurdles in front of Elizabeth, and as her mother, I have had to reach deep inside me to remember my father’s lesson – life IS not fair, but how I encourage my daughter to take on the opponent of cancer is making a difference. I see it in her drive – in her smile – in her desire to make sure others remember to not let life slip by unnoticed.

At the time of her diagnosis, our pastor delivered a sermon entitled “Make Room for Joy.” As I began to use my bulldozer, get-out-of-my-way personality to help Elizabeth navigate the twists and turns of living with stage four brain cancer, this sermon gave me a lifeline.

This sermon asked me to make room for joy- to be grateful – to delight in the moment. Since then, the sermon’s message has become my rally cry. Even in the midst of watching my child bravely battle cancer, I have much to celebrate. I have had to shove fear aside to make room for joy.

Publicly, I use the hashtag #MakeRoomForJoy to celebrate all of the good that has emerged from my child’s experiences with cancer. Yes, in fact an overabundance of good has emerged. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of people have shown up to offer support; skilled and patient hands of the healthcare professionals at the James Cancer Center in Columbus, Ohio, sustain her life; and the strength and resiliency I see my daughter so graciously draw on every day inspires me.

Never once has Elizabeth uttered the words, “This isn’t fair.” Never once. And, she could have. No one would have blamed her. That’s not Elizabeth, though. She, too, knows that she wasn’t promised a trouble-free life. She would rather celebrate the joyful moments than dwell on things she cannot control.

And so there it is. Even in the midst of the ugliness of cancer, I have so much to celebrate. Because of that, I will always #MakeRoomForJoy. My dad was right. No one ever said life was fair, but how I lean into that apparent unfairness makes all the difference.