Softening Into Joy
2017 has been very, very good to me.
This is not easy for me to say out loud, because I know it's been THE WORST year for so many people. I won't even list all the tragedies and natural disasters that have befallen our nation in 2017, let alone the world, because I think we're all a little too well acquainted with them.
But even when turmoil and misery abound, there are pockets of sunshine and hope.
Someone, somewhere is falling in love. Achieving a goal. Healing a relationship. Creating something beautiful. Overcoming a health challenge. Finding God. Discovering their worth. Welcoming a baby. Lifting a lonely heart. Laughing until they cry.
I'm living in my own little pocket of joy. And I'm terrified.
Researcher and writer Dr. Brene Brown has said, "There is no emotion harder to feel than joy." And here I am, having reached the end of the two biggest, most heart-wrenching challenges of my life, plus the realization of a lifelong dream, and I'm so stunned that it's all real that I keep envisioning something terrible lurking around the corner. I'm half-afraid that the moment I publish this post, a meteor might smash through the roof of my home, obliterating everything in sight.
Brene calls this "foreboding joy." You look at your sleeping children and feel overwhelmed with a love you never knew was possible. Then the very next second, you picture a car crash or a kidnapping or a cancer diagnosis.
We do this to protect ourselves from future pain, but all it does is deflect the joy of the present, which is the very thing we'll need to draw upon if any of those unlikely scenarios were to occur. Here's the perfect explanation of foreboding joy:
As Newt Scamander says, "My philosophy is that worrying means you suffer twice." (I'm sure I heard this concept before the film was released, but when I looked it up, all the attributions went to Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. So J.K. Rowling gets the credit!)
This is a mantra I had to repeat to myself ad nauseam during my last pregnancy: Don't let my fears of another bad outcome rob me of the joy of this moment. If everything goes well, I'll regret that I didn't revel in this once-in-a-lifetime chance to see a pregnancy to term. If things don't go well, my attempt at "preventative suffering" won't lessen that future pain. In fact, it might make it worse, since I won't have reserves of peace and joy to draw upon. Even if the suffering were inevitable, I could still control how long it lasts by, you know, waiting until the bad thing actually happens before I start suffering over it.
It makes sense, but it's still easier said than done.
Luckily, there's a tried-and-true antidote to foreboding joy, and this is the perfect time of year to talk about it.
The antidote is gratitude, according to Brene's newest book, Braving the Wilderness, which I devoured in a couple of sittings earlier this month. My heart soared when I encountered this concept in her book. Now I have something concrete to do. Whenever I find myself cutting feelings of joy short with imagined future calamities, I stop and practice gratitude. When I can feel gratitude first, it's much easier to soften into feelings of joy.
Not only does this help me ward off my mental tragedy reel, it serves another purpose. As I revel in these happy moments, as I swim around in them and soak them up, I'm building up my resilience. Pain and challenge are a part of life, and I know I haven't reached my life limit yet. When the next big trial comes, I need reserves of joy to draw upon. I need memories of light and laughter to see me through.
We tend to think "the bigger they are, the harder they fall." The bigger our joy, the bigger our crash? No, it's actually worse to spend our days wading around in low-grade misery, only to sink further when things REALLY get bad.
So here I am, doing my best to soften into the joy of three wonderful, miraculous events that I thought might never come to pass:
#1. After 12 years of infertility (yes, you read that right, 12 YEARS...144 months...4,380 days), I gave birth to a beautiful, healthy baby boy in July. He is perfect. He is my second miracle baby, 6 1/2 years after the gift of adoption first made me a mother. My kids are my everything. The fact that I had to fight so hard for them makes the victory all the sweeter.
#2. After 14 challenging years with all of the typical blended family problems, plus a few more, my stepson is doing AWESOME. We faced some incredibly tumultuous years with this kiddo, and it was all happening right on top of the worst of our infertility struggles. But time can work wonders. He's now a senior in college, studying wildlife biology, and getting great grades. He's a healthy, responsible, contributing adult. He has a darling girlfriend who is great for him and whom we adore. Our relationship with him is better than ever. There were times we weren't sure we'd ever see this day, and it feels amazing.
#3. After a lifetime of dreaming, I signed a book contract for my first children's picture book earlier this year! I've nourished a secret wish of becoming an author from 3rd grade on. I wasn't brave enough to directly pursue the dream, so I got here in a circuitous way. I've always taken the practical path with my education and career, choosing common-sense fields and industries that would pay the bills. None of this chasing rainbows business for me! (Although I secretly wished I had the courage.) I thoroughly enjoyed the decade I spent writing and editing in the memory keeping/crafting industry, which was so fulfilling—and creatively draining—that my children's book writing pursuits were always sidelined. But now that I'm earning my keep with a part-time freelance marketing gig, I have enough time and creative energy for kid lit, too.
Each of these gifts, miracles, blessings, whatever you want to call them, could fill a post of their own. They could fill volumes. And there will be volumes to come, I hope, as I figure out how to fit blogging into my life again.
I want to tell you my son's birth story, because I'm so proud of that accomplishment. It was truly a crowning event of my life. (And not in the way you think, wink wink, since this little man arrived via C-section after 20 hours of unproductive labor.) And I'm dying to share the serendipitous path that led to my book contract. I may not share much about my stepson's journey, since it's not my story to tell, but it's a good one...and getting better all the time.
For now, I'm practicing gratitude* so I can fully sink into this overwhelming, all-encompassing joy that I've been hoping, dreaming, praying for—all these years.
*What do I mean by "practicing gratitude"? More on that in a future post. But it's more than just feeling or acknowledging gratitude. It's an actual practice, and it works wonders.