It’s that time again. Time to choose a word to define my 2013.
My friend Mary (from Play off the Page) and I began doing this a few years back. It’s become a tradition that others have caught onto as well. It’s fun to think up the word that will define the coming year, and by year’s end, analyze how close the word came to reality. Most often, it’s a remarkable match.
Here’s my first one-word post. That year, the word was “pursue.” Last year, I chose a new word: “ready.” After a great deal of pondering, I’ve finally come up with this year’s word: “joy!” (How can you not add an exclamation point to that word?)
So what does joy look like? Here’s one version:
This is my youngest, Nick, now seven. Nick’s got two modes: full-out embrace of life, or full-out disappointment. I love it when his spirit soars, like in this photo. Look at the toes, curling in contentment of his happy, joy-filled life, which at the time probably entailed a full belly, clean diapers and a mom who was making silly faces at him. Nothing better than a happy baby to depict and remind us of true joy.
I don’t take my choosing of a yearly word lightly. For that reason, I want to go a little deeper with this and distinguish what I feel joy is, versus the similarly aligned word, “happy.” After all, had I chosen the word “joy” expecting every day of my 2013 to be happy, I’d likely be hugely let down just a few days into it.
The reality is that I have a father who has been in the hospital since before Thanksgiving who remains there and may never go home. That situation alone doesn’t bode well for 365 days of happy upcoming.
But joy. Well, that’s another thing entirely. To me, joy is a deep-down kind of feeling that isn’t as fickle as happy. Rather, it permeates the soul and has an enduring quality, borne from the kind of contentment based on something long-lasting, unconditional, permanent…even eternal.
I knew my word had to have something to do with the fact that I’ve come home, after a year of trying to make myself fit into the shape of something I cannot be. Indeed, I was ready for the work that came my way, but I was not, as it turned out, ready for the setting. Having come to that discovery, I have felt exceptionally joyful in the last month of 2012, stopping myself mid-thought many times a day to thank God for His blessings.
So, why mess with that? Why not keep the blessed momentum of joy going?
Some of the other words that came to mind include “home,” “hearth,” even “tethered” before I realized it carries the negative connotation of being tied down. The latter is not how I feel at all so it would be the opposite of reality. I do feel more grounded and at peace, however.
In the end, I sought a more active word, and joy spoke to me the moment I uttered it. It’s the one that has requested accompanying me through 2013, and so I’m going to go with it, trusting it won’t let me down, and enjoy the ride.
One of my favorite reflections on joy comes from my blogging friend Emilie, who wrote on the subject just before her death in December 2008. It’s worth repeating here on this day I am announcing my word, joy. Since I can’t find it in link form through the archives of The Catholic Spirit, where it first appeared, or her blog, where it was posted once as well, I hope that the words in this form will do for now.
Finding Joy in the Midst of Darkness (Emilie Lemmons)
On a recent Sunday morning at Mass, I was glancing at the program and saw an invitation to participate in the Advent liturgy with “a joyous heart, mind and spirit.”
Immediately, I became angry. How on earth can a person with stage 4 cancer that is progressively getting worse feel joyous, I thought. My resentment seethed, and I sat like a hard stone all through Mass.
When the intentions mentioned those who are ill, I identified myself immediately and felt like such an outsider — just like the homeless people and other people on the fringes with whom I was lumped in the same intention. I felt miles away from normal, and it was hard to accept.
I’ve been like this for a few weeks now, ever since I was hospitalized for a week in November for a pulmonary embolism and fluid buildup in my lungs, ever since a CT scan found even more tumors growing there.
It’s hard to cope when I’m so angry, depressed and hopeless — yet somehow it feels fitting in this dark season of Advent.
In these weeks, we watch and wait, lighting candles that progressively light the way to Christmas Day. In my own life, when I feel so plunged in darkness, I watch and wait as I contemplate what those candles might illuminate.
Later that day, I read a few chapters of “Kitchen Table Wisdom,” a book of reflections by Rachel Naomi Remen, a wise physician and counselor who brings a spiritual sensibility to her work with cancer patients. A passage about joy stood out,reminding me of my anger at the word earlier in the morning.
Telling about people with terrible illnesses who nonetheless choose to “show up for whatever life may offer,” she describes them as “intensely alive, intensely present.” She writes:
“From such people I have learned a new definition of the word ‘joy.’ I had thought joy to be rather synonymous with happiness, but it seems now to be far less vulnerable than happiness. Joy seems to be a part of an unconditional will to live, not holding back because life may not meet our preferences and expectations. Joy seems to be a function of the willingness to accept the whole, and to show up to meet with whatever is there. It has a kind of invincibility that attachment to any particular outcome would deny us. Rather than the warrior who fights toward a specific outcome and therefore is haunted by the specter of failure and disappointment, it is the lover drunk with the opportunity to love despite the possibility of love, the player for whom playing has become more important than winning or losing.
“The willingness to win or lose moves us out of an adversarial relationship to life and into a powerful kind of openness. From such a position, we can make a greater commitment to life. Not only pleasant life, or comfortable life, or our idea of life, but all life. Joy seems more closely related to aliveness than to happiness.”
The passage felt freeing to me. It essentially says there is a certain freedom in putting the outcome of my cancer in God’s hands, letting go of the end result, and just embracing whatever life throws in my path. I wish it were so easy.
Sometimes I see myself in the description of people who fight toward a specific outcome and are “haunted by the specter of failure and disappointment.” It’s the mother in me. I rage against the possibility that I might die and leave my children motherless, my husband a widower. Even though the medical odds are against me, and my rational mind knows I could die, it is hard for me to accept death as an outcome.
What if I just let go of that? What if I trust that even if I die tomorrow or next month or next year, things will somehow work out? What if I allow myself to put the outcome in God’s hands and just live intensely in the present, absorbing and embracing life as it happens? It’s not indifference or admitting defeat; it’s seeing the bigger picture.
Maybe that’s what was going on last week when I received a surprise gift in the mail from a group of friends. Inside were a book, sweater, some candy, some stationery, all of it beautiful and thoughtfully selected.
I burst into tears as soon as I opened the package. And while I knew they were tears of joy, they felt as if they were coming from the same place deep inside me where my sorrow dwells. It was as if joy and sorrow were intermingled in an intense response to life.
Maybe that is what Rachel Naomi Remen means when she writes, “Joy seems more closely related to aliveness than to happiness.”
Maybe I am capable of experiencing joy after all. Maybe I don’t need to approach joy with resentment. Maybe that message is what my Advent light is illuminating. I pray that I can enter into the lesson God is trying to teach me.