The Summer of 2013 treated me well: I got to spend most days reading books, writing songs, cooking frittatas and watermelon bars, teaching swimming lessons, watching Mary Kate and Ashley movies, and enjoying the magic of the sun setting over Choctawhatchee Bay as sail boats soared past me.
It was like a Nicholas Sparks book, minus the perfectly mysterious and heart-wrenching romance.
But certainly the best thing the Summer of 2013 gave me was this Henri Nouwen quote:
“Joy does not simply happen to us. We have to choose joy and keep choosing it every day.”
(Honestly, I’m pretty sure I found it on the internet while searching for inspirational Christian quotes. I had just gotten into photography and opened an Instagram account for the very first time, so I was in need of some good caption ammo. #tryingtoohard)
Why was this quote important to me in a seemingly perfect summer? Because all of these wonderful things were tainted by the emotional roller coast that is the approach of a dear grandfather’s death: hospital visits, family disputes about the right course of action, feeding tubes, oxygen tanks, pill regimens, home care nurses, witnessing too many goodbyes, monitoring pulses and breaths and blood pressure.
I moved to Florida that summer not for the sunsets and frittatas, but to care for my beloved grandfather.
And somehow I chose to do that after an absolutely grueling school year. It had been one of the hardest, most devastating years of my life. Two of my friends from high school and middle school were killed instantly in middle-of-the-night car accidents. I struggled against darkness in nightmares for the entire year, and doubted the very existence of God. I faced social anxiety as a student leader/resident assistant, which bred deep fear and a sense of incompetence.
Throughout the year I sought happiness and affirmation from boys, friendships, achievement, etc. I wanted to make myself happy again. But nothing really worked.
Nouwen helped me to separate joy from circumstances: joy isn’t the result of the state of our lives, and it’s not caused by good things or affirmation. Joy is a state of being; it dictates how we respond to circumstances and prepares us to approach all of life with confidence in the goodness of the Lord. And so we choose joy. When hard comes, we face it head on knowing that God is in control and that life is truly beautiful, even in the midst of pain and sorrow and death.
That Summer of 2013 I began choosing joy.
“Choose joy” got me through a lot of days when I could only cry that summer, and it has come back time and again when my heart has felt empty and tired.
To choose joy is not to be blind to pain or sorrow; rather it is to assume that life truly is really, really hard, but that there is something greater to hope for, something beautiful growing out of the ashes of pain, hurt, and sadness. Choosing joy allows us to be honest about the hard stuff, to recognize it, even to name it, but to simultaneously re-posture ourselves against bitterness, anxiety, and fear. It is the re-posturing that leads to the restoration and re-creation of our hearts when they are breaking.
In the past year I’ve walked through a lot of hard: I’ve lost loved ones through betrayal and to death. I’ve been disconnected, lonely, and distraught. My identity has been questioned and eventually torn to pieces.
In my heartbreak choosing joy showed me how to value other relationships. In the loss of my grandfather choosing joy offered me a little glimpse of heavenly healing. In my loneliness choosing joy redefined loneliness as an opportunity for solitude and a chance to meet God in the quiet and stillness. When my identity shattered, choosing joy renewed my confidence as a beloved daughter of the King.
Choosing joy is a daily task. And it is a calling to a life that will not be dictated by the ups and downs of this world. In this past season of my life it became a mantra that pulled me out of the deepest pits of shame, anxiety, and fear. Because those things mean nothing in the face of true Joy. They cannot win in the re-posturing of our hearts and minds toward joy.
Choosing joy isn’t easy. In fact, I would argue that it is actually impossible without the living power of the Holy Spirit. But it is so incredibly worth trying. So, with that in mind, I invite you in the midst of the mess, to Choose Joy.