How to Find Joy in Unexpected Places This Summer

Happiness and Joy

Photo Credit: Timefortea3 via Compfight cc

On July 1, 2012, as the minutes ticked toward midnight, my wife and I stood at the edge of the country. We faced east, gazing out over a dark and undulating Atlantic.*

And we held our breath.

Because hundreds of miles northward a vast thundercloud throbbed with orange pulses of energy, and jagged bolts of lightning showered the horizon. From a distance, it was quiet, but violent and powerful and breathtaking.

At the same time, the sky above us was star-scattered and, from the south, a full moon bathed the beach in a gentle glow.

In one direction—violence and destruction. In the other direction—tranquility and beauty. And us, standing in the middle of it.

Alone.

The beach was empty.

On the fluorescently-lit boardwalk several hundred yards away, throngs of tourists licked ice cream and ate funnel cake and pushed quarters into arcade games.

Distracted.

They were enjoying the classic holiday weekend. Each year, Americans spend approximately three billion dollars celebrating the Independence Day holiday. Three billion dollars on gas and burgers and soda-pop and sparklers. I contribute more than my fair share.

But I wonder if all of us are settling?

I wonder if we settle for happy things on the boardwalk of life.

Licking Happiness and Forsaking Joy

Happiness is all about pleasurable circumstances and orchestrated comfort. Happiness is when all the tumblers fall into place and life just clicks.

It’s sitting on the front porch on a perfect June evening with plenty of money in the bank account. It’s the right job coming along at the right time. It’s your kid walking down the aisle in a cap and gown with a full-ride scholarship, or your daughter walking down the aisle in a completely different kind of gown to take the hand of a guy you actually like.

Happiness is winning lottery tickets, and good luck, and serendipity, and pinch-me-I-must-be-dreaming. Happiness is the perfect ice cream cone on the boardwalk, with fireworks on the way and a long beach week with cloudless skies ahead of you.

Happiness is sweet and it goes down easy. But it is always fleeting. Because circumstances change.

The furnace goes out and the roof springs a leak, and suddenly the financial margin evaporates. Or the new boss is a disaster. Or the kid comes home after a semester at college because the pressure got to him first and the amphetamines got to him next.

Happiness is an ice cream cone that melts, leaving you with sticky fingers and a constant hunger for more.

But joy.

Joy is a place inside every circumstance. It’s a constant place, and it feels like peace, and it gives hope, and it looks like love, but it is more than all of these things, and words will always fail it. And the place of joy is waiting for us.

But there’s a catch: it only exists right in the middle of the lightning and the moonlight. In fact, the place of joy in us cannot exist independent of the storms in life, because joy is the peace that comes from looking right into the storm and feeling freedom from it.

Joy is the place we stumble upon when we look our deepest pain and greatest fear directly in the eyes, and we refuse to flinch. It’s the place we discover when we decide pain and fear aren’t going to be the final word. It’s the place where we anchor ourselves in something more than the vicissitudes of our material existence. It’s the place of freedom inside every situation, where we realize the things that are happening to us are losing their power to control us and define us.

Joy is not the answer to hardship. Rather, it is the birth of an entirely new way to experience the pain and the fear and the sorrow itself.

Joy is lightning and moonlight, all at once.

Lightning and Moonlight

The night after I stood between the lightning and the moonlight, I boarded the Paratrooper ride at the boardwalk carnival with my oldest son. The Paratrooper is a kind of Ferris Wheel on steroids, whipping you up and down with legs dangling and feet flying out into the open air.

As the ride commenced with a lurch and a growling-hum, my son gripped the sticky handlebar with desperate tenacity. Looking straight ahead, he confessed, “Daddy, I’m terrified.” As we crested the top of the orbit, I shouted to him, “Put your hands in the air; if you can do this, you can do anything!”

I’m not sure that’s entirely true, but I knew it would feel true to him.

And with joyful defiance, my gutsy, lovely son raised his arms above his head and let loose a wild scream, all terror and glory at the same time. Violence and beauty, all at once. My son stepped into the lightning and the moonlight. He chose his terror and found a joyful freedom there.

I think he’s glad he didn’t sit on the sidelines licking an ice cream cone.

Are We Ready to Risk Everything for Joy?

If we’re going to live, really live, we have to choose to stand in the middle of the lightning and the moonlight, because that’s where joy is found. That’s where we find peace and freedom from the pain and fear, in the midst of the pain and fear.

And that kind of joy gives birth to meaning and beauty. It will be more terrifying than ice cream. But it will be vastly more joyful than funnel cake.

What ice-cream-cones-of-life are we licking?

Where is the dark beach of our lives? Are we tired of the false promise of happy things and ready to step off the boardwalk and go there?

Because there will be lightning waiting, but there will also be moonlight.

And in the middle of it all?

Joy.

———

*This post was adapted from a previous post: “Licking Happiness and Forsaking Joy

Comments: This is the first time I’ve updated an old post, and I’ll do it one more time this summer (vacations, you know?). But which one I choose is up to you. What is one of your favorite posts you would like to see updated? Vote in the comments section at the bottom of this post, by leaving the title of your favorite post. (Sorry, no “Marriage is for Losers” or “A Daddy’s Letter”!)                  

Free eBook: My eBook, The Marriage Manifesto: Turning Your World Upside Down, is available free to new blog subscribers. If you are not yet a subscriber, you can click here to subscribe, and your confirmation e-mail will include a link to download the eBook. Or, the book is also now available for Kindle and Nook

Preview: Next Wednesday’s post is tentatively entitled, “Why I Cried at a Kindergarten Soccer Game”

Disclaimer: This post is not professional advice. It should be read as you would read a “self-help” book. For professional and customized advice, you should seek the services of a counselor, who can become more intimately familiar with your specific situation. Counselors can be located through your insurance network or through your state psychological association.

Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Vanessa Portaro

    earlier this year i was at my local beach. i was with a friend who loves sunsets so we were watching carefully as the sun set over the water…. then just to the right of the sunset brewed a fantastic storm – lightning and all… i took a photo of the display and wondered if i would ever find a use for the photo…. i did today… thank you… also, my favourite post of yours? ‘the most important thing to look for in a life partner’ – changed my life….

  • Diana

    Great article as usual. I would say that choosing joy takes courage, as it is tough to stay in there and look fear in the eyes. The more joy we feel, the more fear we need to conquer.
    And I think as well that you are right in your statements because joy can only exist in the present moment. When we shut down the mind which calculates and figures out the future by its own, based on past experiences and logic. But to stay there, not knowing the future and being afraid, but choosing the joy, this is feeling ALIVE and vibrant!

    • drkellyflanagan

      Well said, Diana! It does require courage and, somehow, a bit of fait to trust that staying there, facing it, will bring freedom from it and joy. Thanks for this insight!

  • Diana

    Ah and I choose “Daddy’s letter”

  • Cathy

    Before reading this post I just finished writing an email to my former fiance’ about why I didn’t think I was ready yet to encounter him (with his new girlfriend, in particular) in social situations. I said (among other things) that I wasn’t purposely holding on to my strong emotions that felt painful and I am ready for them to be gone or less than they are right now but recognize that they aren’t gone yet. I have been struggling not to be defined by the decisions he made to end our long relationship and commitment and I do find joy in the midst of my current pain and uncertainty (I have also recently been laid off of the job I have had for the past 12 years). Your post is timely in again helping me focus on being present with all that feels terrifyingly destabilizing in my life right at the same time that I hear the birds sing, feel the breeze on my face through my open window, smell the wonderful scent of my neighbor’s lilies and am grateful and joy-filled that I have another day on this planet to see what will happen next.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Cathy, You captured perfectly what joy so often feels like to me. Regardless of what is going on around me, if I can tune in to the feeling of the breeze, the smell of freshly cut grass, there is a bit of freedom. In the words of Jon Kabat-Zinn, if you are breathing, there is more right with you than wrong with you. Happy 4th!

  • Craig

    Really enjoyed this entry.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Thanks, Craig. Hope you guys are having a great start to your holiday!

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  • Hong

    Thanks for another brilliant article that made me look at joy in a different perspective. I am looking for such ‘joy’ that seem elusive. However, I think if we are willing to look beyond our fears and hurt, we will find such joy. I am currently in a dilemma searching for the right answer to my actions and I have to say this article shed some light to my problems. Thank you Dr Kelly. I will look for the joy with great perseverance and patience.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Hong, I think you’re on to something here. Finding joy has much less to do with its availability than with where we are looking. We have to look into our fears and hurts, and we will find it there. At the same time, I would encourage you to not make finding joy a task to accomplish, or it will be forever elusive!

  • MM

    This was a great post! I look for joy in the every day circumstances of life, knowing that God will get me through every storm. Finding joy during those hard times can be difficult sometimes but it always comes to me and I am grateful for that.

    • drkellyflanagan

      That is, indeed, something to be grateful for, MM!

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