Monday, May 23, 2016

a simple path to joy (part 2): the intersection of gratitude

In my first post in this series, I claimed that true joy is impossible to find when we are living in denial. We begin our journey to joy by facing life's messes head on and choosing to be honest. That's how we enter the gateway on the path to joy.

Next we come to an intersection, and we have to make our second choice: gratitude. We cannot be everything we might have been, have everything that can be had, go everywhere there is to go. We can only be and do and have this. Once we have faced our disappointments with brutal honesty, we are free to move on with gratitude for what our life actually holds.

Our world is full of constant reminders of what we don't have. Ads surround us incessantly, telling us all day long about the products and services that will make life easier, or sweeter, or more successful. But joy depends not on what we have but on our disposition towards what we have. The Greek philosopher Epicurus warned, "Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not." Put another way, "Happy is the woman who wants what she has." In fact, sometimes we uncover joy by having less, by simplifying our lives -- clearing out our closets and giving things away. Every item we own gets a piece of our care and attention until we have no energy left to care for the things that really matter. It is freeing to declutter, to downsize, to keep only what we actively use.

But this intersection on the pathway to joy isn't only about what we have. It's also about where we are and who we've become. There are more possibilities in life than we have time to try, more opportunities than we can pursue. When we cultivate the habit of thankfulness, our hearts are positioned for joy. We cannot take every path, but we did take this one. To spend our time wondering about all the other paths we could have taken robs us of joy. I am not an astronaut. I am not a midwife. I am not a famous singer. I am not a jungle missionary. I am not even one of those amazing stay-at-home moms who actively volunteers at the elementary school and whose kids have really creative birthday parties every year. Saying 'yes' to one path has meant saying 'no' to others.

About a year ago we realized that I would probably never finish my doctoral degree unless I started to say 'no' to good opportunities. I resolved not to say 'yes' to anything but family until I was finished. At first it was painfully difficult. The things I was asked to do were right up my alley. They were things that would energize me. Ways to plug into my church and my community for which I was uniquely suited -- lead a small group, speak in chapel, teach a college class. But after half a dozen difficult 'no's' my schedule was completely open for the task I dreaded -- revising my dissertation. And I discovered that when I had complete focus, I did much better work and enjoyed it far more than before! I relished the gift of concentration. We shoot ourselves in the foot when we try to do it all or have it all, or spend our energy wondering what would have happened or what could have been. Those things are not. This is what is. Here is where we are. So let's embrace it and move forward with gratitude. 

This is a sure way to begin to find joy. But what about the uncertainties ahead? In my next post, I'll talk about what to do when we can't see around the bend in the road.


  1. I love you blogs. Believe it or not, I look forward to them. Thank you. And miss you!

  2. I so appreciate your posts, Carmen. Even when I am unable to leave a comment, know that your writing continues to instruct, encourage, and inspire.

  3. Yes, honesty and gratitude are ingredients in the life of joy. I am still working on them. And surprisingly, God will share His joy with us as we repeatedly fall and get up. Ps 16:11 - there is joy in His presence. The work of my life these days (I am 67) is to find my way to life in His presence--every minute of the day (thank you, Frank Laubach). A joy has been breaking through the soil that I have not experienced before. It is a quiet steady joy. Dallas Willard's definition seems to fit: a pervasive sense of wellness. Or in Julian's words, All shall be well. There are still highs and lows, but a steady-state "I shall not want" is growing. Isn't God good.

    1. Bill, I know just what you mean. I was surprised at first to read in Gordon Smith's 'Called to be Saints' that he considers joy to be a mark of spiritual maturity. That seemed a bold claim. But the more I've thought about it, the more I agree. Thanks for your comment!