When I was a kid one of my favorite Sunday school songs started out: “I have the joy, joy, joy, joy, down in my heart…” This was before I realized I can’t carry a tune so I sang that song with delight and gusto.
It’s easy to have joy when you’re seven-years-old. Your parents pay all the bills, your mother cooks all the meals and does all the laundry, you have no debt, you don’t pay taxes, your grandma sends you money on your birthday and you still haven’t had to struggle with gender differences.
Then comes adolescence and you begin to realize that joy is not a constant in life.
I’ve been taking up space on this planet for nearly seven decades and have spent many of those years in search of joy. Certainly, I have experienced joy but I have also known sorrow. And the things I thought would give me joy usually did not.
Finding love and marriage brought joy, but it brought challenges as well. The birth of children brought joy, but it, too, brought challenges.
Advancing in my career brought joy, but my career brought trials as well. Oh, boy!
Losing Cindy, my wife of 43 years, brought the deepest sorrow I have known. The Psalmist wrote, “Weeping may last through the night but joy comes with the morning.” The pain of losing a mate never completely goes away, but joy came again when I married Julie.
I think I understand joy better today than ever before and, in the process, have learned to distinguish joy from happiness.
One psychologist observed, “Joy and happiness are wonderful feelings to experience, but are very different. (Joy) comes when you make peace with who you are, why you are and how you are, whereas happiness tends to be externally triggered and is based on other people, things, places, thoughts and events (www.psychologies.co.uk).”
I thought of what brings me joy while sitting in church recently. Midway through the service, our pastor dismisses the younger children to Children’s Church. With this proclamation, dozens of little ones with big smiles come running down the aisle on their way to their own worship service.
I recognized that these happy children bring me happiness, but they also bring me joy. And that’s because of who I am – a big ol’ marshmallow who loves kids.
When we visited our grandchildren in northwest Iowa recently, they swarmed us at the door. “Grandma,” four-year-old Wyatt exclaimed, “where have you been? We’ve been waiting for you.” They couldn’t wait for us to open birthday and Valentines gifts immediately upon our arrival. Their gifts, of course, brought happiness. Their adoring welcome brought us joy.
When we left for home, Julie and I each received warm good-bye hugs. Being affectionately hugged by a child brings me great joy.
Making new acquaintances also brings me joy. My family teases me about not knowing any strangers. I enjoy meeting people and finding something in common with them. It’s a part of who I am.
Other things that bring me joy? I love springtime in southern Iowa where calves and lambs frolic in rolling, green pastures. This Iowa flatlander finds joy in the grandeur of mountains. I find joy in the kind smile of an elderly person who has known both joy and sorrow and retains an attitude of hope. Joy comes in sipping a cup of coffee in my mother’s kitchen while visiting with the woman who loved me through my mouthy teens.
Other things bring me joy these days but none of them are actually “things.” I have learned to distinguish joy from happiness. While happiness can be serendipitous, joy is a choice.
Henry Nouwen was a Dutch Catholic priest, professor and author who struggled with many issues in his life. “Joy does not simply happen to us,” he observed. “We have to choose joy and keep choosing it every day.”
That choice is not all that difficult. There’s an old Swedish proverb that says, “Those who wish to sing always find a song.”