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.
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.
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.
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?
In his debut novel, Kelly weaves a page-turning, plot-twisting tale that explores the spiritual depths of identity and relationships, amidst themes of healing, grace, faith, forgiveness, and freedom.
Connect with Kelly
Dr. Kelly Flanagan is a psychologist, author, consultant, and speaker who enjoys walking with people through the three essentials of a truly satisfying life: worthiness, belonging, and purpose. His blog writings have been featured in Reader’s Digest, The Huffington Post, The 5 Love Languages, and the TODAY Show. Kelly is the author of Loveable and True Companions.