Life is difficult. It’s difficult for everybody. For some more than others perhaps, but everyone has troubles. I have learned that one of the most incredible parts of being human, one of our biggest blessings for being alive, is the ability to feel joy. It may also possibly be the most unappreciated and underestimated states of being we have. Joy is an emotion that can transcend all others. It can creep up on you slowly, warming you so quietly you don’t even realize it’s there until you are fully wrapped up in it. Or it can slam into you as suddenly as and with the force of an explosion, powerfully overwhelming you in an instant. Either way, it’s an amazing feeling that all too many people take for granted. Or worse, turn away from and refuse to allow in.
There are a lot of things in life that are not a choice. Being happy is.
I remember when my daughter and I were living in a particularly awful old apartment building in a particularly awful little town in Connecticut. It was as if the entire town had been sucked down into a deep pit of despair and resignation that life would not ever get better. Our building and the little house behind it were owned by the same slumlord, I mean landlord. There were a number of families in the two buildings, with about a half dozen children falling in the 5-9 year old range. In the spring and summertime, when the weather was pleasant, it was natural for us to pour out onto our balconies or the lot behind our building, striking up small talk and encouraging the children to play peacefully while we parents tried to forget our troubles for a few moments and escape the oppressive heat that inevitably lingered in our homes due to the pervasive lack of air conditioning. One late-spring evening after a couple of days of heavy rain, one of the children noticed the side yard of the smaller house had been morphed into a large mud pit. We grown ups didn’t notice it at first. It started with stifled giggles and slooshing noises. Then it blossomed into the full blown laughter that only comes from children free of any worldly worries. I looked over to see one of the neighbor children get a running start and then hydroplaning across the mud, sending up a long spray of nasty brown muck along the white siding of the house. My daughter was in line, ready for her turn. My first instinct was to start screaming at them, are you crazy? Stop doing that right now! You’re going to get filthy! One of the other moms beat me to it. But then something strange happened. I looked into their little faces, seeing first the twinkling joy, then the surprise and fear of getting in trouble, then obvious disappointment as the fun came to an abrupt end.
Then I did something I would have sworn only a moment before I would never, ever do. I told the other mom to let them be. I told her it was only mud and it would wash. The other parents looked to me like I was a bit nuts. I waved my hand and told them to just let them go, that we could hose them off when they were done and plop them into baths. I saw a couple sets of shoulders shrug and then several of us started to chuckle. With a collective nod from the parental group, the kids immediately resumed play. With a full green light for fun, the hydroplaning on bare feet quickly turned into using the strip of yard like a giant, muddy Slip-N-Slide. Each kid would get a running start and belly flop into the grime, sliding a good 20-25 feet before coming to a slow stop next to the short chain-link fence. The laughter, screaming, and squeals of delight were unbelievable. I think the parents enjoyed the spectacle almost as much as their children. After a couple of hours, twilight gently fell over us like a snugly blanket. The kids started to wind down. The night cooled off a little and the fireflies came out in force. One of the dads picked up a garden hose and began spraying down our muddy monkeys to uncontrollable giggles and shouts of, “Look at me! Here, here, spray me next!”
I learned something very valuable that day. Joy is all around us. It is up to us to seize it and let it in. Since then I have chosen to do just that, every single moment I can. I have to deal with the same types of problems that we pretty much all have in some form: chronic pain and other health issues, the struggles of raising a teenager on my own, financial woes, grief, hurt feelings, the pain of watching elderly family members deteriorate right before my eyes, the irritation of a house that always needs cleaning or something fixed, right down to the neighbor kids that won't quit leaving their toys behind the wheels of my car even though I've asked them countless times to please keep them in their own yard. Irritations, anxiety, fear, and even anger are constantly knocking on our doors. If we let them in to have a seat and take off their shoes, they'll do just that. And like a house guest that just doesn't know when to leave, they won't. They'll take over and make us miserable in the process. It is up to us to know when to look through the peephole and pretend we're not home. It's okay, because those are the kind of guys that won't wait around long if you ignore them.
Instead, I choose to look for the moments of fun, laughter, and lighthearted joy that are all around me. I'm not saying that those other guys don't get in sometimes, because they certainly do. I swear sometimes they sneak in through the drainpipes. The point is, I don't let them hang around. I push them away. As a result, I spend most of my time in quiet contentment, and much of it happy and laughing. Despite my problems. I choose to be happy. I choose to laugh at the irony of life, at the craziness of it. And when something truly wonderful happens, I drink it in. And I share it. Because, like all emotions, joy is catchy. When you are happy, others around you can't help but pick up on it, and to respond to it. Goldie Hawn is thought by many to be one of the happiest people on Earth. She has said, “I have witnessed the softening of the hardest of hearts by a simple smile.” I too, have witnessed the same thing. I make a point to smile at strangers. But I also make a point to smile at those I love. We forget that sometimes. My daughter and I have a long standing tradition of silliness. It works for us. Laughter and joy has kept us loving and sane through even the hardest of times. And we never let the fabulous moments in life pass us by. We enjoy them, we remember them, and we hold them in our hearts.
So give it a try. The next time you have the urge to be cantankerous, let the kids play in the mud. Join them if you can. Take a deep breath and smile. And appreciate the joy that is life.