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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My Spiritual Guide

The Universe has its gentle and not-so-gentle ways of speaking to me. On occasion, it offers me signs so incredibly loud, I dare not ignore them. Fortunately, I have a spiritual guide, a woman whose feet kiss this earth as an educator. As a third grade teacher, she helped my daughter navigate the global turmoil on the days that unfolded after that crisp September day in 2001. Instead of fear and revenge, she quickly shifted the focus to action – to peace – to understanding. In those moments, often learned through dinner-time conversations with my impressionable third grader, I felt connected to Anne.

Through her gentle spirit, she not only taught Elizabeth how to hold fear and hope simultaneously, but also, without knowing it, Anne modeled for me how to turn inward to understand the chaos of the world. I needed a friend like Anne, and the Universe knew it as well. Because our children went to school together, I work with her husband, and we had mutual friends, our journeys eventually merged. This relationship is what the Universe intended. The relationship has pushed me into new, vulnerable spaces.

Over the last two decades, I have learned to draw on Anne’s observations – her reflections – her musings long after our visits or phone calls have passed. Unintentionally, but out of necessity, my life has called me to focus on my spiritual journey. I have danced through most of life, often pouring myself into others, ignoring my own emotional needs. I lose myself in serving others, mentoring, loving. However, losing my grandmother, my daughter’s diagnosis with a brain tumor, a divorce, have all called me to turn inward, to spend time excavating who I am, to consider a world I cannot control, to examine my purpose in the world. This is where Anne has helped me, like she did my daughter in 2001, understand the importance of leaning into fear and hope at the same time despite the delicate balancing act it requires.

My spiritual journey has led me to understand the sacred is in every moment – every day – every uncomfortable experience – every instance that fills me with great joy. As I untangle my life – my heart – my purpose, I am realizing so much about this journey. The Universe, when I pause long enough to pay attention and to listen, has offered me important lessons. With help, I am learning to stay awake to the moments as they unfold, and because of that, I see the purpose of the journey.

I’m joining an open community of writers over at Sharing Our Stories: Magic in a Blog. If you write (or want to write) just for the magic of it, consider this your invitation to join us. #sosmagic