Shortly after the beginning of the year, I texted my friend Arica:
“Do you ever have days when no matter how hard you pray or how much worship music you listen to or even if you hold your hands up to the heavens, you just CANNOT muscle your way into joy? Like you’re a Christian that has lost her sheen for a moment—and now you’re just showing up on principle, kind of grunting your way through?”
To be clear, there was no crisis I was in the midst of, no tragedy or anything, really, that should have discouraged. Just your average, run-of-the-mill existential malaise that finds a person on a Thursday when it’s raining.
If my memory serves, the day of the text was entirely ordinary. I had gone to the base library to get work done in the quiet study room. Marines had congregated there, like they do, in large groups to tell jokes loudly, curse frequently, and talk to distant strangers on speakerphone.
Because I am a Christian, I frequently looked up at them trying to exert compassion and grace but instead my eye contact was a mix of fury and exasperation. One could say it was the distinct look of constipation.
But that was not enough to ruin a day. In fact, I find that the days where joy escapes me usually don’t have an easy culprit to point to. It’s in the throes of the ordinary where I feel acutely discontent. It’s when I’m doing a menial task I’ve done 9,000x before that I become convinced that every single person on Instagram is either on an extended tropical vacation or just loving that photogenic #momlife.
So I sent a text to Arica and she replied instantly “Yes, yes resounding yes.”
See? She’s such a good friend.
In the first week of the New Year, everywhere I turned people were evangelizing their ‘word for the year’ or list of goals. In previous years, I have been this person, too. But this year I didn’t have a word or a list of objectives that needed accomplishing.
It seemed to me that much of 2015 bled into 2016, as though they were identical twins playing tricks on me. Should I feel a different intimacy about one over the other? To me, they were two entities that looked exactly the same. How was everyone else able to tell them apart?
From my vantage point, it seemed like a lot of people— especially online—got a second wind in the New Year while I was straggling behind, bent over with hands on knees, winded and trying to gain my composure. I wondered if they had found an aid station of purpose, energy, and prophetic insights that somehow I had missed. How did I miss it?
I mean I’ve been reading my bible and showing up for church and worshipping in my kitchen with raised hands while Molly eats her toast and looks at me concernedly. Yet even the midst of spiritual disciplines, even hedged into great friends and a great family, even in the center of a life that by all accounts is utterly complete, the most resounding lesson of my January has been the grit of faithfulness.
My takeaway is the humdrum conviction to simply keep going.
At first I felt self conscious about it, but now I think it’s okay to live into the conviction that God is good and present, that each day is sourced with extravagant provision, without your emotions circling the arena of your soul like hands doing the wave.
Faithfulness is often a discipline that comes without a lot of perky emotions. In my case it looks like changing diapers, sweeping the floor, repeating the timeout cycle. And when I’m lucky, retreating to this laptop to tap away some words, often in a library that is decidedly unquiet.
Joy is easy to talk about, elevate, but a really hard thing to take hold of. When I talked to Arica after the text message, she said “Yeah. Joy is a battle.”
And I’ve found that the battle comes even when there’s no crisis at hand, not even a prayer request I can posit to my mother. I’ve found joy is elusive especially when the circumstance is just more of an unchanged road ahead, more of the task you already did yesterday. Joy is difficult when it seems there’s no new occasion to hang it on.
But instead of succumbing to this cloud of discontent, here is the small habit I’m cultivating in my very good life in 2016.
I call it Do The Opposite.
When I look at social media and feel a pang of envy for what someone else has, I pray the opposite of my emotions. I pray for blessing and more provision in her life, that she would continue to find more success in her career and more satisfaction as a parent.
When I don’t want to make dinner (again), I redirect towards: “Is there someone I can bring dinner to?” Automatically, half a dozen families come to mind. And truly, I’ve been surprised by the joy of serving someone else in the exact area I occasionally wish someone would serve me.
And when I feel like there just aren’t enough hours in the day, like I’m perpetually falling behind, I’ve started to cling to Colossians 1:18-20. “From beginning to end he’s there, towering far above everything, everyone. So spacious is he, so roomy, that everything of God finds its proper place in him without crowding.”
Maybe you’re in the same boat or maybe you’re levitating above the waters, so buoyant are you in natural joy.
Either way here is my strategy, the resolution I’ve clumsily stumbled into: when joy is hard to find, do the opposite.
Perhaps then we will all be surprised by the provision that lingers in the exact opposite place we thought to look.