John Ortberg, in his book The Life You’ve Always Wanted, opens one of his chapters this quote from G.K. Chesterton:
Because children have abounding vitality, because they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”…For the grown-up people are not strong enough to exalt in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough…It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun…It may be that He has the eternal appetite for infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.
Ortberg recommends that we find a joy mentor. My son, Max, has become my Joy Mentor. I don’t know of anyone better to teach me how life ought to be lived in this area. He has been sick on and off (more on) for four months now and if you smile at him he’ll smile back. Pick him up, carry him around and he’ll make sounds of delight. He’s stronger than I am and it’s in joy that he finds his strength. He has an innate sense of wonder and a proclivity toward joy that allows him to endure with vitality a cold for months that would lay me out in a couple of weeks.
Joy isn’t something God magically bestows upon on us. It’s a state of being and a practiced art that requires intentionality and focus. We have to want joy, be ready to spot it, and dive into it when it appears. We have to allow ourselves to embrace it.
During my conference a few weeks ago, as I sat in the lobby of the hotel, I began working on some writing. A woman next to me sat down and proceeded to call up a friend and talk on the phone. Why is it that phone conversations are so annoying and distracting? It’s so strange; people talking to each other in person don’t seem to get me irritated in that way. But then she began to talk with her child, she must have been away from her for the conference. I heard the warm interaction between the two and was thankful for their love for each other, in such sharp contrast to the horrific parent/child relationships I often see in my profession as a therapist. I was also moved because I was missing my son. As I enjoyed their love for each other and reflected on missing my family, my frustration vanished and was replaced by a sweet moment.
It requires some work and intentionality to find and hold joy. As Chesterton implies, it takes strength. From a neuroscience perspective, I think it requires us to strengthen neural connections that we have allowed to deteriorate as we have gotten older. The ability to hold a moment and connect to an emotion is something that only comes through sustained, repeated effort. I’m reminded of the following verse:
And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise. (Phil. 4:8 NLT)
From my perspective this verse is more of an opportunity than a challenge to be morally right. I’ve heard this used as criteria to determine sinful activity but I think it’s a road map for the kind of neural rewiring that Romans 12:2 talks about: “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” It is a wonderfully freeing and healing experience to direct my thoughts toward things that set me free from judgment, condemnation, expectations of rejection, anger and anxiety.
Joy comes as we intentionally focus on and connect with joy itself. I turn my thoughts toward things that shift me into a better place and that frees me up to smile and take joy in the things around me. This is more than an intellectual activity; it is a whole brain activity. We engage our emotions intentionally and redirect our attention to those things that bring joy. I picture my son son’s smile as I whisk him into the air and hear is funny excited laugh that sounds more like a cough than our polished adult laughter. As I feel his joy, I allow that to extend around me. I begin to take joy in other things. Hebbs law states that neurons that fire together wire together. The more we intentionally feel joy the more readily we can access joy in the future.
To miss out on joy is to miss out on the reason for our existence- Lewis Smedes