You know how every child is superlative in their own way? The cutest, the smartest, the loudest.
Our second son is the happiest.
This boy brims over with grins. Every photo we snap shows bright eyes and beaming smiles. He wakes up with delight and he chortles to himself all day long. And it’s not just his biased parents who notice it. Strangers stop me in the store or cluck his chin after church, remarking that he’s just such a happy baby.
While his older brother was a fairly cheerful chap, there was still a cautious look about him. Many of his early pictures reveal a startled shock in his eyes, unsure if this whole Existence Ex-Utero thing was to be trusted.
But #2 is 100% delighted at life. Ceiling fans! The dog that licks his face! Peek-a-boo! Babies in the mirror! Everything is funny, joyful, rollicking to our young lad. And lately his giggles and grins have made me wonder if I give enough space in my day for joy.
Celebrating the joys in my life was one of my New Year’s resolutions. But I’ve slipped away from this simple daily practice of pausing in contentment. Joy seems buried under to-do lists, kitchen clutter, and loads of laundry. Once again in the spiritual cycles of my life, I’ve let the busy get in the way of the mindful.
I wonder what I can learn from my youngest son about joy. I’m not an unhappy person, but I sometimes tend towards the stance of my older son: a bit hesitant, a bit cautious. I long to borrow a bit of his baby brother’s delight at the world.
Certainly he doesn’t have the burdens of adulthood to worry about. No deadlines or bills loom over his sweet head. He doesn’t have the depth of emotional awareness that clouds my day when I hear depressing news – a loved one’s illness, a friend’s death, a news story about unbearable suffering in a far-off land. Worry is not yet a habit he’s developed. He’s wrapped in the pure joy of childhood like a warm blanket.
But his joy is resilient.
Last week he cut his first tooth. The milestone was heralded by a few fussy days, a few restless nights. The cranky departure from our normal jolly gentleman came as a clear sign that a change was on the horizon. But this morning as I write, he’s all goos and giggles beside me, happily gnawing on a toy with his one wee pearl of a tooth. He’s bounced back like the pain never existed.
The persistence of his cheerful nature is teaching me that joy is not simply a reaction or a response. It’s a way of life. It’s the way this child operates – his default mode. I’ve known few people like this in my life, but every time I come across them, I’m filled with longing to borrow their joy, to see the world with their bright, loving, open eyes. Joy is contagious like that.
Certainly the joy of an adult differs from the innocent bliss of a child. But while my daily swirl of cares and concerns often shift me into a different gear, I also possess a capacity to make choices that my baby cannot. So I can make a decision to delight. To celebrate. To give thanks for goodness. Knowing the darkness of the world and its shadows, how much brighter and more meaningful is my decision to choose joy?
And if joy – in God’s goodness, in the promise of resurrection, in the triumph of love over evil – is central to the Christian life, how does my daily demeanor reflect the deep convictions underneath?
How can I refuse to let anything steal my joy?
A few days before Lent, I sat my son down for a serious conversation over crackers.
“So buddy, Lent starts on Wednesday. Lent is a time when we get ready for Easter. And during Lent we don’t sing Alleluia. So we’re not going to sing Alleluia for a while.”
His sea-blue eyes sparkled up at mine. His milk-smeared mouth turned up at the corners, and he cocked his head full of curls to one side.
“Should we sing Alleluia?” he cooed.
“No,” I replied patiently. “I just said we’re NOT going to sing it for a while. Because it’s Lent. And we don’t sing Alleluias during Lent. We save our Alleluias for Easter.”
“Should we sing Alleluia?” “No.”
“Should we – ” “NO.”
“Sh-” “NO! I SAID NO ALLELUIAS DURING LENT!”
Snack and failed attempt at liturgical catechesis both met an untimely end. The cherub scampered out of the kitchen and raced up the stairs, warbling as he went: “AH-AH-YAY-YOO-YA, AHHHH-YAY-YOO-YA!”
The rest of Lent? You guessed it. Our house has been filled with Alleluias. Cranky Alleluias and cheerful Alleluias. New lyrics sung to Alleluia tunes. Alleluia lyrics slapped onto nursery rhyme songs.
You would think we were already stuffing our cheeks full of Easter chocolates the way Alleluias are resounding round here.
I was annoyed for a while. Ok, I foisted my Lenten disciplines on my child and it failed. I tried to teach a two-year old about the somber tenor of a solemn season and it was a total flop. I realize now that if I had never uttered the A word on Ash Wednesday, I probably would have had a Alleluia-free Lent. I get it.
Silly, silly new mama.
But in the dusty midst of spring cleaning last weekend, a piece of paper fluttered to the floor as I swept a pile across my desk. I picked up the small scrap, its edges taped and retaped, remnants of a journey from childhood mirror to dorm room wall:
Let nothing so fill you with sorrow that you forget the joy of Christ risen.
(Dear Mother Teresa. That little lady had a gift for summing up the Gospel.*)
I thought about the stubborn persistence of joy.
Scraggly green shoots that push up through concrete cracks. Bandaged children who squeal with delight as they play in bombed-out buildings. Cancer patients who crack jokes with their nurses.
Something small and resilient within the human spirit seeks joy at any cost. Alleluia is a stubborn word to purge from our vocabulary. Our tongues ache for it during Lent: the forty days seem too long, and we’re cranky and tired by the end. We need more joy. Which is precisely the point: to do without so we remember how to do with.
This year, we’re plagued with an abundance of Alleluias, courtesy of one cheeky toddler. But I’ve given up fighting with joy. I figure God thought we could use an extra dose of delight in our days, and I’m done complaining. Aren’t all our Lents supposed to be lived in the light of Easter joy?
*For a little Lenten inspiration, check out these quick reads from some great theological minds on the Gospel in seven words or less.
And if you want my spin?
“See those people?” God asks. “Love them.”
(Coincidentally, it also applies to parenting.)
We’re two weeks into the New Year. How are your resolutions going?
Mine are – and I have never uttered these words before – going well. For the first time ever, I find myself heading into week three not cursing the workout regime I’ve already slacked from or lamenting the prayer discipline I’ve already dropped.
Because this year, I made my resolutions in a drastically different fashion. Which is to say: I made them uber-realistic.
I’m a busy mother of two young kids. I cancelled my gym membership halfway through my last pregnancy, and I have no plans to renew it anytime soon. I love cooking, but I don’t have the luxury of lingering over exotic new recipes. So instead of setting myself up for another February failure in the resolution department, I got practical.
1) I started planning early. Resolution #1? To work more intentionally on my writing this year. Push it in new directions, polish up rough corners, ponder what might lie ahead. So back in December, I found a monthly writing group to join and two workshops – spaced far apart throughout the year – to try. Realistic enough that I could squeeze it in; big enough to challenge me. But I knew I had to start early to make it stick.
2) I erred on the side of vague. Resolution #2? To become more generous. My husband asked me what this one meant, and I told him I didn’t really know. I just knew I had room for improvement in the generosity department. But since vagueness grates on me as one who loves clarity, I’ve made myself look at generosity from many angles. Small ones (like leaving a bigger tip for baristas) and big ones (like reassessing how I can volunteer the little free time I have). Vagueness has meant my resolution has already surprised me in delightful ways.
3) I consciously thought about them every day. Resolution #3? To celebrate the joy in my life. Too often I zero in on all that’s out-of-place, still-not-done, not-good-enough. So every day since January 1, I’ve taken a moment or two to pause and let the reality of my life bring me joy. I’ve seen my marriage, my family, my work, and even my to-do list differently since I started practicing a little joyfulness each day.
So since this is the first January I’ve ever celebrated – instead of cursed – my good intentions for the new year, allow my joy (see #3) to be your cheerleader.
First, go read this. And pat yourself on the back for all that you’re already doing to thrive in the life you already live. Give yourself credit for the changes you have made, even if you’re surrounded by the chaos of raising children.
When I sat back and reflected, I realized that since having kids, I have: 1) become more serious about my writing; 2) become more committed to yoga. Two goals I had for years, but never acted up until: 1) I needed a creative outlet to process my transition into motherhood and started this lovely little blog; 2) I needed to tend to my aching pregnant body and fell back in love with yoga. Two resolutions that have changed my life for the better, because of – not despite! – my mothering.
Second, give yourself a break. January 1 is an arbitrary day on which to change your life. Start today, or start tomorrow. But don’t get bogged down by dates. Just take one small, practical, first step.
Want to jump-start your prayer life? Try a free sample of this wonderful daily resource here. (Or see below for more!) Want to go green? Ask someone else how they do it. Imagine how your life would look or feel if you made the change that’s been nagging you for years. And then imagine what dreams God has for your life. How can you clear a little room for the Spirit to sneak into a new corner and surprise you?
Happy New Year, belatedly. And happy resolving. It’s never too late.
To celebrate 2012 – and my 200th post in this corner of the world! – I have 10 free 3-month subscriptions to Give Us This Day, a new daily prayer resource from Liturgical Press. Morning and evening prayers short enough for busy parents, daily reflections on Scripture from wise thinkers, and glimpses of saints’ lives from around the world and church.
Give Us This Day is a gem, and I’d love to share it with you. Leave a comment below with your New Year’s resolution (or lack thereof!) and I’ll toss your name in the hat.