Ten years ago my mother died. She was 66 years old, and much too young to die. She worried a lot, and ultimately, her worry ate her alive. Technically, cancer killed her, but it’s likely her worry manifested it. She wanted to be a housewife and mother, and she entrusted my father to be the breadwinner. But he was incapable of that task, and their life always teetered on the brink of disaster. Our life is “built on a house of cards” she used to lament. She worried incessantly that they would lose the house and end up homeless. She felt like she was riding “a slow motion train wreck.” Yet she stood by her man. Many applauded her stoicism and loyalty. But somewhere along the line stoicism and loyalty became denial and resignation. She stuck her head in the sand. She was afraid of their future, yet she was also afraid of taking matters into her own hands. Fear got in her way. At any time she could have chosen to take a leap of faith, and taken back control of her life, but all the what ifs paralyzed her. She couldn’t see that Joy was waiting for her, so she gave up. Her death was shocking and rocked my world. It caused me to re-evaluate my life. I realized that I was following in her footsteps and letting Fear rule me. I realized I had to make an active choice - would I let Joy or Fear serve as my North Star?
There was a lot at stake, and many unknowns. For a little while I was paralyzed. Then I had a dream about Fear. I was in a dark house, at the bottom of a steep, wooden staircase. At the top of the stairs there was a door that was slightly ajar, and an ominous red light was emanating from the room behind it. I was petrified, and stood frozen looking up at that staircase and that eerie light. In the dream, I knew I had to climb the stairs and enter that room. But I was afraid to. I felt I would die if I did it, but I knew I had to do it. So I climbed the stairs. And I pushed that door open. And I walked into that room. As I entered, to my surprise my only thought was, “Oh. It’s only Fear.” And just like that, it lost all its power. It was just fear, pathetic little fear, and I kicked it aside. The red light went away, and I woke up. I decided to choose Joy.
Choosing Joy was not all sunshine and roses. This wasn’t about some Pollyanna version of life where the goal is to be happy at all times, or where one shirks responsibility or denies reality. This was about how I wanted to see the world, and approach my life. Did I want to live a life of possibility, or a life of resignation? Was I going to see the cup half-full, or half-empty? My mother’s death made me realize life is short, and we have to make the most of what we have. Now. Today.
Back in 2010, choosing Joy meant choosing divorce, and it caused major upheaval in my life, and in the lives of my kids. Some people called me selfish. I lost friends and money. But to me it felt like a decision between life and death. I didn’t want to end up dead in my sixties, or sooner, being numb and blind to Joy. I didn’t want to worry myself to death. I wanted to model living an authentic, positive, loving life for my kids. And to give Joy a chance, I had to be brave and forge through the hard stuff to get to the good stuff.
Once I chose Joy, it began to enter my life in abundance. I rebuilt my life, and eventually I fell in love. This love is greater than anything I ever imagined possible. Alex is one of the most joyful people I’ve ever met. It’s like having a personal Joy coach. When I get down, he’s there to encourage me and he has my back. I see the life he’s built, and I feel Joyful to be a part of it with him. He has experienced sadness and hardship just like everyone else, but he has much more Joy and opportunity, because that is the part of his life he feeds and nurtures. I think of other people I know too, who have had unimaginable tragedy and sorrow in their lives, yet they lead lives of Joy, because that is where they place their energy and focus. I think of my mom, and wish she could have met Alex and seen what’s possible when you choose Joy. When the hard stuff of life comes at me, Joy can keep fear at bay, instead of the other way around.
But Joy is not a static thing, and it takes practice, especially when trying to undo old patterns and habits that were engrained in my brain since childhood. I consciously put Joy in the driver seat ten years ago, but subconsciously, fear is still there, making its snarky comments from the back seat. Sometimes fear climbs over into the front seat and reaches over trying (and sometimes succeeding) to take control of the steering wheel. When this happens, it’s dark and hellish. It scares the shit out of me, and yes, I realize the irony of that.
Fear can pack a wallop. It can derail one’s best intentions if you let it. We all make mistakes, and we all do things we regret. Lord knows I have. But I will continue to place my faith in Joy and Love. A worrywart may have raised me, but I know who she really was, and she was not fear. She was a victim of fear. She did the best she could. I can recognize her shortcomings, but I can also recognize her strengths. She was the rock in my sister’s and my life. She created a stable, beautiful home, full of love and comfort, and she sheltered us as best as she could from the chaos and fear that stalked her. There are aspects of her life that I want to model, and other aspects that I want to avoid. Those are the parts that serve as a cautionary tale. When the world around me seems to spin out of control, I will continue to try to keep Joy as my North Star and not fall victim to fear. When I choose Joy, I do it not only for myself, but also in part for her.
Most importantly, though, I choose Joy for my life with my husband, Alex, our kids, my sister, and all our extended family and friends. This is so imperative. It is a matter of life and death. Life is a gift, and we shouldn't waste it. I want to be the sort of person who brings light and laughter into the equation. I will make mistakes and fall back into old patterns from time to time. But being human means we also have the capacity to rise above our failings and grow and learn and evolve. That’s my goal. I promise to never give up. When I fall down under the weight of fear, I will get back up again, and kick it to the curb, turn off that red light and turn on my true shining light from within. I will wrap Joy around me like a magic cloak, and move forward with courage and determination and love.
I wrote a song about Choosing Joy, and I've included a playback option below.