Finding the Courage to Choose
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. — Romans 15:13
Let’s begin by acknowledging I am probably going to hurt someone’s feelings with what I am about to say. For that, I’m sorry. I wish I could wrap my arms around you and whisper, “I get it, I understand, and I love you,” because I do. But sometimes it takes a good girlfriend to say the hard things, so…
Oh, hold on. Do you need to go grab a glass of wine first? I can wait. Okay. Here it is: you finding joy is your choice. It’s your decision, no one else’s. You might have experienced tremendous loss, hurt, and sickness, but you can still choose to live a life with joy in it — even through the sad and hard times.
Maybe that sounds cliché. Maybe you’ve heard “ joy is a choice” a million times. But I want you to really hear me on this, so I’ll say it again: It’s your choice. It’s up to you, and no one else. No one else is responsible for making you happy or fulfilled. Not your husband, not your mama, not your kids, not your best friend, not even the girl behind the counter at Baskin-Robbins (although, admittedly, she does a very good job serving up short-term joy experiences).
Joy is a one-woman job.
We have to quit blaming our circumstances and the people around us for why we do not have joy. It is a decision to continually exist in sadness, and it is a decision to step out of that sadness.
Did that feel like I just ripped a strip of wax off your upper lip? I’m so sorry.
But honestly, I want to stand on the top of roofs and yell it out: You can choose to be happy! Because, my sweet, precious friend, you can.
Have you ever been around a miserable, mean person? Someone who emits real negativity, and when you’re in their space it kind of sucks the life out of you? It’s as if they’re a black hole that might drag you in if you get too close, so something in you says to stay away. (I’m not saying you should stay away; this person probably needs you to take her to lunch or at least to give her this book.) That is a person who chooses over and over to stay in their pain. It may have been one big choice or a million little ones, but each time the chance to choose joy arises, the decision is made, instead, to continue down the path of hurt and bitterness.
Now, let’s be clear: I am not saying we aren’t meant to experience sadness or grief. Of course we are. I am also not speaking to those who suffer with debilitating mental illness or chronic depression. But for many people, there comes a point in your journey of pain and loss when you have to make a choice between embracing happiness or staying in your despair.
If you want to climb out of the darkness — out of that pit of sadness — you have to be purposeful about it.
Many years ago I went to my first radiation appointment. I was nine months into my breast cancer treatments, and radiation was the final phase. Six weeks earlier I’d had my mastectomy, and for six awful months before that I’d endured chemotherapy. The first signs of hair were beginning to grow on my head, and I was oh-so-ready for this final stretch.
I arrived at the treatment center and was sent into a dressing room. I took off my shirt and bra and put on one of those incredibly attractive hospital gowns that ties in the back but never seems to work correctly, so you constantly fear a bit of naked is showing through. Praying that nothing too upsetting was hanging out, I entered the pretreatment waiting area and sat down.
Directly across from me was a woman who appeared to be in her late fifties. She had all her hair, had a plump figure, and her face was full of healthy color. She looked at me and asked, “Is this your first radiation treatment?”
I nervously nodded.
“Well, I have to tell you, it’s hard,” she said. She let out a big sigh. “The first week you will feel fine, and then you’re going to get incredibly tired and you won’t be able to function, and your skin is going to be so burned you won’t be able to wear clothes. I don’t even know how much more of this I can take.”
I was stunned. That wasn’t at all what I was expecting. My oncologist had assured me that this was the easy part. Had he lied just to keep me going?
The woman told me she was seventeen rounds in and had only three more to go. I needed thirty-three, and her uplifting chat was sending me into full radiation freak-out mode.
About two minutes later, they called me back. I entered the room and lay down on the table. The technician marked up my breast with a Sharpie and aimed the radiation machine at my chest. The machine was on for eleven seconds in three different angles and I was done. Two minutes, tops. That was it.
The next day I returned, same routine, only this time sitting across from me was a frail, bald, white woman who looked painfully thin. I couldn’t tell her age because she was in the throes of such sickness, but I would have guessed around seventy. She smiled immediately, her sickly face brightening as she said hello.
“How many rounds have you done?” she asked.
“One,” I replied cautiously, fearful to hear another horror story of what was ahead.
She waved her hand like she was shooing a fly. “Oh, honey, this is nothing. It’s a breeze. Today is my last round of thirty-three. Compared to what we’ve been through, this is a walk in the park.”
I wanted to let out a burst of relief tears but managed to hold it together. As we talked a little more, I learned she had been battling cancer for years, in and out of hospitals, and yet I could see the way she chose to be a joyful light to others.
One chose joy, one chose misery.
Physically, this second woman was suffering more than the previous day’s lady, but nonetheless she chose to find the light in her day. She chose to lift me, even in the midst of her pain.
It would take almost an entire year before I fully understood the significance of her choice to speak with joy. That is when I too reached thirty-three rounds of radiation. I found myself exactly where that kind, frail woman must have been that day; I was exhausted, tired of being tired, and my skin was burned and blistered so badly that even the slightest brush of fabric was excruciating. I realized she must have been feeling just like this, and yet she had spoken to me with a smile, breathing belief into me, even through her own suffering.
Finding joy in your life does not mean you walk around in a perpetual state of skipping and laughing. It doesn’t mean you are grinning and waving to every single passerby, although that would be fun. It means when you are sitting in the pain, you can take a deep breath and smile because God gave you one more breath to live.
When my daughter Madison died, I didn’t think I would ever be able to survive the intense, excruciating pain that came hand in hand with her death. It wrecked me down to my core, and it took me months before I thought I would even breathe normally again. The pain felt like a black cloak hanging on me, one I couldn’t take off no matter how hard I tried. And I’ll be honest, for a while I quit trying. Instead, I sat back and decided the black cloak was there to stay, and I just had to wear it.
As I began to look at what I was left with, I searched for just one thing I could feel grateful for. I had another daughter, so it seems like that would have been an easy answer. But when you are hurting so intensely, the obvious isn’t so obvious and what might be possible feels impossible. Happiness seemed impossible.
But there she was, a bouncing, energetic, joyful three-year-old. My Makenzie. I knew she deserved more. She deserved a joyful mother. I didn’t realize it at first, but recognizing this was the first small step toward climbing out of my hellacious pain — the first hint that I would eventually remove the black cloak.
At first my smiles were forced, my expressions of happiness were fake — all disguises of my horrific pain. Then one day, they weren’t. They were how I authentically felt. I didn’t notice it immediately when it happened; I just looked back one day and saw that in all the pain, happiness had found its way through.
I chose to model for Makenzie a parent who was happy and joy-filled, rather than one who was continually gripped in sadness, hiding in the sheets of her bed. I chose to get up, to laugh with her, to take and pick her up from school. It wasn’t easy, but I was determined. I saw a counselor and I took medicine. I did everything I could to try to be what she deserved.
I would love to tell you that my reason was because I knew God created me for more or because I knew I needed to live my best life, but it wasn’t. My reason for taking those first few steps to move out of sadness was just one — deciding to rediscover joy for the sake of my little girl — and it was enough.
My faith was not strong in this season. In fact, I had moved further away from God than ever. I was angry that God had not saved my innocent, beautiful Madison, that other children were miraculously healed and mine was not. Why did miracles happen every day but not for my baby? What kind of God would do this? I did not think He was a God of good; He let my baby die. My daughter was gone, and with her loss, my faith was gone too.
It took me many years to find my way back to Him, and now I know this is partially why it took me so long to find any joy after losing Madison. (But I also know that, even then, He was under that dark cloak with me. I just couldn’t see Him.)
I do not have a perfect plan for finding joy, but for me, it has always started small. What am I grateful for? I know, seriously over-used move, isn’t it? But it works.
I believe gratitude is the greatest catalyst for living a happy life.
There have been seasons when I’ve lain in bed and thanked God for my breath as tears streamed down my face. Literally, my breath. That I was alive, that He pulled me through another day of chemo.
I promise you, joy and God are one and the same. My joy increased as my faith did; they went hand in hand. It might sound hokey and a little crazy, but I am living proof. When I chose to walk with God, when I gave my life over to Him and accepted Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior, joy was easier. When you choose Him, you choose joy.
My faith has grown bit by bit. I don’t understand the Bible fully, and I am not an angelic woman ready to eloquently share the perfect words of Scripture for every situation. But I’ve spent a ridiculous amount of time in the field getting on-the-job training about God and joy, and I know that I know that I know:
Joy, my sweet friend, is your choice. It can be a little choice or a big choice, but it is yours and yours alone.
Excerpted with permission from Laughing Through the Ugly-Cry and Finding Unstoppable Joy by Dawn Barton, copyright Dawn Barton.
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When you are sitting in pain, you can still feel joy. The choice is yours to make. I’ve had to make that choice again and again and so will you! What are we going to do, friends? Let’s go for the joy! ~ Laurie McClure, Faith.Full