The phrase ‘choose joy’ used to turn my stomach.
Just choose joy—it’s easy, right?
No, it’s not easy, but I believe it’s possible.
A few years ago Steve and I traveled to Thailand to visit friends and meet artisans. We joined our friends, and some of their friends for dinner one evening. One of the girls in the group had just celebrated her 15th birthday.
“Wow, fifteen” I thought. “She’s only been in a Thailand for a couple years. What’s it like to be an American girl at fifteen, living in Thailand?”
So I asked her.
“It’s been really hard,” She answered honestly. “I didn’t want to move. I miss my friends back in the United States. I don’t know the language and I’ve felt lonely and sad. But last week was my birthday. So I decided to be happy and not worry about all the hard things. I decided to enjoy the day. It was great! I felt so free. I laughed and had fun. It was the first time I felt happy since we moved here. The next morning, I woke up and asked myself, ‘Why not be happy again today?’ So I did. Since then, I’ve been enjoying Thailand. It’s beautiful here. I’m making friends. I like it.”
Whoa. Her story stopped me in my tracks. So much insight. So much real life experience—real pain, real joy. She was learning to choose joy. Was it easy? No. But sadness and loneliness aren’t easy either.
The day David was born was one of the hardest days of my life. Everything I expected for my life, our new baby and our family was gone. There I was, a brand new mom with a tiny baby who had two fingers on his left hand, and lots of questions. I remember Steve and I sitting on the edge of my hospital bed in my sterile post-partum room, sobbing. I can’t remember another time I’ve been so overcome with grief. I could feel the pain coursing through every part of my body. My chest felt heavy like lead and burned hot with hopelessness. It was over. Life as we knew it was over. Grief was appropriate. We were experiencing tremendous loss. We were also worried for our new baby—what would his life look like? And oh my gosh, what would my life look like? I was terrified.
Slowly over the next weeks and months we got to know our sweet David. We learned how to change his tiny diapers and feed him through the tube that went directly to his stomach. We learned how hook him up to a machine to monitor his heart while he slept. We adjusted his car seat to the smallest setting to keep him safe. Slowly but surely I was falling in love with him, but I was still trapped in shame. Was there something I’d done that caused his disability? Did I use a cleanser or chemical during my pregnancy that affect normal growth? Did I eat something that hurt my baby? Wasn’t a mother supposed to keep her baby safe? I failed. David’s doctors assured us we hadn’t caused David’s syndrome. And yet, as his mother I blamed myself.
I remember walking through Trader Joe’s market with David tucked inside his baby carrier close to my chest. An older gentleman looked at us and noticed David’s small hand with only two fingers.
“God bless you.” He said with kind eyes.
“God bless me?” I thought. “I’m a failure. I don’t deserve a blessing.”
Still, his blessing was a soothing balm to my hurting heart.
Days later we went to lunch. While we waited for our burritos, we munched on chips and salsa and sipped our sodas. I found I was accidentally enjoying myself.
“Oops!” I thought, scolding myself. “I’m not allowed to be happy. I have a baby with a severe disability.”
The moment was a breath of fresh air but I was still stuck in shame and sadness. I remember regretting I didn’t worry more about David’s health while I was pregnant–as if worrying would have changed something.
The first months and year of David’s life were tumultuous. Being a brand new mom is a massive transition, but the health issues, doctor visits and multiple surgeries his first year meant we mostly functioned in a haze. Falling in love with David was the sunshine that began clearing the haze. His adorable giggle was music to my ears. His smile was like a magic glue that healed the cracks in my broken heart. I began to see his life was not a tragedy but something precious and beautiful.
I realized I had a choice. I could continue to be sad, or I could decide to choose joy. For months upon months I’d wished things were different. I cried many tears. I carried the heavy weight of grief with me everywhere I went. Our situation wasn’t going to change. My sadness didn’t make David healthier. My misery, although completely appropriate for the situation, didn’t ease my pain.
I could feel it. My mourning was coming to an end. I was ready to find joy.
One day, I made a conscious decision to accept David’s disability. I made the decision in my head, hoping my heart would follow along–and it did. I would no longer be ashamed of my son or myself. I was honored to be his mother. From the moment of his birth, David was adorable, determined and ready to love with his whole heart. And I had the priviledge of being his mommy. I had nothing to be ashamed of—and so much to be joyful about.
I began to look people in the eye when we were out and about. I made eye contact hoping somehow my eyes would say, “I am grateful to be the mother of this incredible person. I am a proud mama.”
And people smiled back.
One young mom asked, “How old is he?” and told me about her nephew who had a rare syndrome.
I wasn’t alone.
Kids would ask, “Why does he only have two fingers on that hand?”
And I would answer, “That’s how God made him. Some people have curly hair. Some people have no hair. Most people have five fingers on each hand, but every once in a while God makes someone with only two fingers on one hand.”
This answer made perfect sense to them.
“Yes.” They would nod in solidarity. “Each of us is different and that’s okay.”
I was learning it’s both our similarities and our differences that bond us together.
I used to think ‘choose joy’ meant slapping on a fake, plastic smile and pretending everything was fine, when inside I felt sad and alone.
But that’s a lie.
Choosing joy means letting go of the things I can’t control–which is most things.
Choosing joy means having compassion for others, with all their strengths and weaknesses, and having compassion for myself.
Choosing joy means forgiving others and forgiving myself. There is so much forgiveness, so much grace.
Choosing joy means not worrying about what someone else thinks of me.
Choosing joy means speaking my truth, even if it means disagreeing with my husband or a dear friend.
Choosing joy means taking time for me—time for quiet, time for a massage, time for an evening with girlfriends, because my heart requires these things in order to find joy.
Choosing joy means accepting my disabled son just the way he is, from his small hand with only two fingers to his contagious smile. It’s all him and I love him.
Choosing joy means accepting myself the way I am—from my blue eyes to my soft tummy to my tendency to procrastinate. It’s all me and I love me.
Choosing joy means working with a therapist to learn more about myself and heal my heart.
Choosing joy means I am responsible for my own happiness, and you’re responsible for yours.
Choosing joy means letting go of perfection and waking up to see the beauty surrounding me.
Choosing joy means knowing deep in my soul the God of the universe loves me. Love surrounds me.
Choosing joy means letting go of fear and resting in that love. It isn’t easy. Finding this place was like stepping off the ground and onto a shaky ladder. I could only see one rung of the ladder at a time. With each step the ladder became more stable and I became braver. As I climbed higher I saw something truly beautiful.
I glimpsed joy.
It is truly worth the tears, pain and vulnerability. It’s filled with hope and freedom. I will keep fighting for honest heart connection knowing that anything less is a shadow of the life we are meant to live.