Something I’ve struggled a lot with lately is being happy. I read a while back that as a widow/widower, you have to give yourself permission to be happy. I remember thinking that was the dumbest idea, because clearly I wanted to be happy, I just couldn’t be right then. Well as time’s gone on, I have found myself in a (from Google research) common situation where at times I have to consciously force myself to let myself be happy. I have to concentrate on being thankful for what I have instead of depressed about what I’ve lost. It’s not an easy thing to do, and something I’m working on each day.
As I’ve mentioned previously, I love to hear from other people about Stephanie: family, friends, and strangers, who share a funny story about Stephanie or about how she impacted her life. A few months ago, I received an e-mail from Elizabeth, who was on the pilgrimage to Lourdes with us last June. She shared with me how Stephanie, over the short week we were there, impacted her. It wasn’t from any deep conversations they shared or how she was where she was: it was Stephanie’s radiating and constant smile, despite her pain, lack of hair, or the tenant living inside her brain. Elizabeth is involved in competitive debate and speech, and felt that God was calling her to share Stephanie’s impact on her through a prepared speech. Elizabeth shared that speech with me, and she has given me the okay to share it with all of you. It really hit home again for me reading it this week, months after I first read it, because it reminds me of how I want to live like Stephanie did: with a smile on my face and enjoying the moment, because you never know how much time you have left.
Thank you, Elizabeth, for your kind words and for sharing your speech with us.
I first met Stephanie on a volunteer trip to care for the sick in a small town in France this summer. I didn’t know what to expect. Stephanie was a young woman, battling the late stages of terminal brain cancer. In place of hair, an intricate series of tubes connected her head to some medical equipment on her wheelchair. Yet what struck me about Stephanie was something completely unexpected. Every time I saw her, she was laughing!
Meanwhile, I was upset about a medical problem of my own. I have a genetic condition called primary lymphadema that causes my legs to swell due to poor circulation. It acted up when we arrived in France: sore feet, no walking or running, the whole nine yards. Lets say I wasnt in the best of moods. But Stephanie was worse off than me- and so happy! While talking to a friend I realized- in wishing my legs were strong again, I was forgetting the moment. Yet Stephanie, was joyful, because she was enjoying the moment and choosing to see the good in it.
Past, present, and future. Which is the most important? The past teaches us, the present is where we make big decisions, and the future gives us hope. Each is vital to joy. However, only one is completely in our control right now. Lets choose to enjoy the present as a gift.
Today, I will unwrap how to do that and why it is important. First, by looking at how we are treating the present now, second at how to enjoy this gift, and finally, what will happen when we do. In short, what will hopefully become our past, our present and our future.
Perhaps you’re thinking; why does this matter to me? What I experienced is something everyone can go through their entire lives. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America reported that the most common mental illnesses are anxiety disorders affecting over 18 percent of Americans every year! We are struggling to choose joy where we are. We might hold onto the past, or base our decisions on the future. Our culture refines the “American Dream” from an early age; getting into the ‘perfect’ college, becoming a millionaire, marrying Prince Charming and sailing off into a golden sunset. Not bad. But when we focus on one dream, we lose our ability to enjoy where we are. The present stops being a gift and becomes merely a step towards the future. Leo Buscaglia once said “worry never robs tomorrow of its sorrow, it only saps today of its joy.” By planning for our futures now we are not getting any closer, simply losing the present.
But there is an even greater problem in not enjoying the moment. That is losing our trust in God. God wants us to love the present He gives us – as Ephesians chapter 5 says “be very careful, then, how you live- not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity.” When we do not live and enjoy the present, we are failing to trust and obey in God. On that same trip to France, I found myself helping take care of a little boy named Saul. Saul had a serious case of autism; he could only understand Spanish, could not speak, and was partially blind. I couldnt understand how with all of these difficulties this 8 year old boy was so patient and happy. One day, he and I were sitting on a riverbank across from a beautiful church; so I pointed it out. Instantly a huge smile spread across his face, and turning to me, he drew the shape of a cross on my head. Whenever he was scared or tired that week, simply drawing the shape of a cross on his forehead made him so calm. Because Saul had so much trust in God that He would take care of him, it was impossible for Saul not to smile! The famous spiritual writer Jean Pierre de Caussade wrote in his classic book, Abandonment to Divine Providence, “God is sufficiently wise and good and powerful and merciful to turn even the most apparently disastrous events to the advantage and profit of those who humbly adore and accept His will in all that He permits.” God put every one of us here for a purpose. Enjoying the present is graciously receiving His gift! At one point, I had to ask myself; what would you have, if when you woke up this morning, all that existed was what you had been grateful for yesterday? I realized there is so much to enjoy even in the hardest of times, if Saul and Stephanie could smile so can I, so can all of us.
There may be days when toddlers are drawing on the walls, kids don’t want to do their homework, our parents are sick, or finances are too tight. Even in these situations, how do we enjoy the moment? For each person, the outcome is the same yet the process may be different. Helen Keller advised with her own secret to joy:“Your success and happiness lies in you. Resolve to keep happy, and your joy and you shall form an invincible host against difficulties.” I saw this in Stephanie, where even when she was sick, she was so excited to try ‘real’ french food on our trip and to renew her wedding vows. We must consciously and consistently choose joy every day; and when we struggle remind ourselves of a greater joy, perhaps even by offering the simple prayer “Jesus I trust in you”. Caussade advised submitting ourselves to the will of God, offering a prayer such as “I consecrate this day entirely to your love and your greater glory. I know not what this day will bring me whether pleasant or troublesome, it shall be as you please. I give myself into your hands and submit myself to whatever you will.” In this way, we consciously recognize every day as part of God’s plan. My church hosted a missionary from Aleppo Syria and during his visit, we were shown several pictures from the Syrian Christian community which is currently undergoing huge persecution. One in particular stood out to me: a group of boys and girls about my age with a soccer ball. They were playing a game of soccer, occasionally interrupted as they ran for cover from a bombing or gunshots. They were being persecuted for their faith, their lives were at risk even while playing a simple game. And yet on each face was a huge smile- they were so happy to be given a chance to see friends. If people in those difficult situations could find joy, it is most definitely possible for us to do the same. For me, making an effort to find something every day that went well and write it down made all the difference, as Psalm 118 says “This is the day that the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.”
What will our lives look like once we start to slow down and enjoy life? What I learned was that joy gives back by also teaching us to love.
In recognizing the present as a gift, we are able to better love those around us. As Mother Theresa said, “joy is strength: joy is love; joy is a net of love by which you can catch souls.” When all our energy is set on the past and future, we put our relationships there as well. Someone once asked me: if you were on a crashing airplane, and could call one person you loved to say goodbye, who would it be? I realized, do I want to be in that situation? Crashing airplane aside, do I want to let the people I love know that when I am on my deathbed? No! We should always be letting our family and friends know that we care about them, every day. By choosing joy now, we share our love constantly- it’s not something that will happen further down the road.
There may be days when it seems lunch break will never come, you are trapped in a job, or as if a vacation is out of reach. Sometimes we wish we were all grown up. Sometimes we wish we were kids again! Stephanie meanwhile had discovered the secret to keeping joy- which was living her present life as a gift, even in a “very bad” situation.When she and her husband joined our talent show with a duet of “baby its cold outside” they brought the house to tears. Stephanie wasn’t dying- she was living!
Just a few short months after returning home from our trip, I checked Stephanie’s family blog. There I learned she passed away from the same cancer that had taken her hair yet never challenged her smile. From Stephanie I learned: we can have so much taken from us, but our joy is a choice. If we have it, it is because we chose it. If we lose it, we- consciously or unconsciously- chose to let it go. So, inspired by Stephanie’s smile, I chose to be content to put up my swollen feet, and am learning to enjoy to people through moments who are in my life right now. Hyper kids, crying babies, tough coworkers- why should we enjoy them? Because they each are a gift. A gift that we won’t have another opportunity to receive. I encourage you to choose the present as a gift. Because it is God’s gift to us.