Monday, May 3, 2010

Joyful People

We were driving home from my mother's house in Connecticut. In front of us was a jeep. On the back of the jeep was mounted the spare tire, and covering that tire was a wrap with the slogan, "Life is good" printed on it.

My husband noticed the words first and he repeated them in a happy, sing-song voice. Obviously this slogan is something that speaks to him inside, - this is how he feels, this is the creed that sees him through every rough patch during his days.

I know this about him. Sometimes I am feeling so much suffering (from my illness) that when I look at him it is with eyes that see him as crazy. When you are feeling bad, being around joy is good for you, of course, but you see it as a very odd phenomena. When you don't have joy yourself joyful people are a mystery. It is like looking at a rare bird. You notice the jeweled colors and beautiful silhouette but you are not the bird, you are just an observer. There is distance. With a human and beautiful, wild bird there is the great distance between the species.

I was at a type of short, Christian retreat last Monday. It is held in a farmhouse in New Hampshire where both husband and wife are retired from their years of conventional work and have both become ministers. People from my church (in a group of about ten or more) go there the last Monday of every month and we have a "spiritual conversation". What is going to be said nobody knows, we speak freely as the spirit moves us. My minister usually attends, she has become great friends with the other ministers and usually spends her holidays with them, as if they were family.

On this Monday a woman who I have never really spoken to at length said something that confused me. And then a second woman, again who I have no ill will toward but haven't quite managed to feel completely comfortable with, said something that echoed the first.

The first woman is a nurse. She said that doctors at work have said to her, "You are such a happy person, are you always like this or are you only like this at work?" And she told the group that she was simply a joyful person. And that she had always been full of joy.

The second woman is a retired councilor, of who and what I do not know, but she worked in the field of helping people. She said that way back when she was in college one of her roommates said something to her that made her think. Her roommate had noticed that she was always happy in the morning. And the roommate felt irritated by her consistent happiness, apparently available at any odd hour of the day. The woman addressing our group then said that she realized that her joy could get on other people's nerves, but that she too has always been a joyful person.

After hearing these women speak I felt that something was not right. I believed what they said, that they experience their life as joyful, but only perhaps, because they have never experienced a bad break in the core of their being. To me, it sounded like they were boasting of their naivete about life. They might be joyful, but this did not mean that they weren't capable of hurting someone's feelings or being sharp or critical. As briefly as I have experienced them, they are not wide thinkers. Their joy did not profoundly transform their morals or behavior. They probably have never been, as I have been, through a death of their mind. Its rather easy to be happy if everything in life goes as planned. They both had careers that put them in touch with other people's pain - but did they really experience other people's pain? Or are they simply skilled at shutting it out? How can you call yourself a joyful person if you have been wholly witness and involved in pain? I don't mean that in a career of helping people you must be emotionally overturned and burned out by your client's pain, but I think that the ability to acknowledge human suffering makes you careful about calling yourself joyful.

One thing I know for certain is that my husband is a joyful person. So I asked him the next day, "How come you never brag about being a joyful person?" and he replied, "Pride goeth before a fall." And then he explained his perspective on why these two women had proclaimed themselves to be joyful people. He said that in church you are given a freedom to experience joy and testify about it. It seemed to him that the setting of a religious retreat helped these women feel moved to proclaim their joy. From what others have told me, but which I haven't yet experienced for myself, being full of God is joyful.

I asked my therapist about joyful people and he believes that the ones who feel it consistently for real don't brag about it.

I can't hate joyful people. The people who are joyful kind of shine in my eyes. This includes my husband, my therapist, my minister, and many of the 80 year old ladies in my church's women's spirit group. I don't know the two woman who spoke very well at "spiritual conversations" but I doubt we will ever be friends. The live in the world of "can do" and I live in the world of "trying to". They are not unkind to me, but they don't see anything special in me. Funny how you know the people who feel you are special. I am wounded by my illness, and some people can see this wound and understand that I am a little bit different. I have lived through a death of a mind and emerged different from before. I am a shattered person who has been put back together again. I am marked. Believe it or not, some people like me because I am marked.

I can experience joy but I also know that I have to work for my happiness. I have to take medication. I am strategic with my time. I can work until exhaustion but then I force a rest, and the illness passes over me like the tide, ebbing and flowing, moving forward into my mind and then back out of it again. I do activities that puts me in touch with good people, real people, who are honest and wholesome. I am happy with the quality of the people who are in my life.

Friday I took the dog to the groomers (a bit of a long drive away), picked her up again, wrote a letter, and went to see my therapist. In his office we were having a grand time but I said to him "I am suffering right now. There is no other place in the world I would rather be then here with you, but I have done so much today, that now I am in pain." He looked surprised because I certainly did not act like I was suffering. I was smiling and laughing. But the pain was present. And there was nothing that he or I could do about it.

Saturday I went to see my mother and there was a lot to pack and care about because we were staying overnight and bringing my dog. In the afternoon I felt the onset of pain again, from doing too much and seeing too much and saying to much and in general, being over stimulated. So I lay down on my mother's couch and stared off into space. My husband and mother were in the kitchen cooking hamburgers for dinner. Happily they broke into song, singing together, "Tea for two and two for tea, I love you and you love me".

It was strange being in the presence of joy but feeling as well the effects of my illness. After dinner there was a lot to clean up, but my husband went into the living room and read a book. I said to my mother, "You wash the dishes and I'll dry them and put them away". I was surprised how quickly we cleaned up with this method. But while I was drying dishes, knowing how incapacitated and in pain I had been just an hour earlier, I prayed, "Thank you God for letting me dry the dishes. I want to help with dinner, and now I am well and whole enough to help. Thank you for the health I am experiencing right now."

I don't know if I will ever describe myself as a joyful person. The illness is always present, ready after a period of normalcy to strike and make me bed or couch ridden. I would have to become a person who is comfortable with pain in order to be a joyful person, not resent it as I do, and I am not yet at that stage of self acceptance. But there is something peculiar in my mind which makes me think things aren't so grim.

Our church has recently had a lot of reconstruction. All the paint was peeled off and four new white coats were applied, and much maintenance work was done to make the whole building as beautiful and pristine as possible. The concrete walkway to the main doors was taken up replaced with brick pavers. These pavers could be inscribed with any name or slogan you wished - as long as the words weren't more than 13 letters long and there weren't more than 3 lines of inscription. A paver inscribed costs $100 and my husband and I are still wondering if we can spend the money to buy one. But I know, instinctively, right away, what I would want my paver to say. In two lines, I would wish for people to see this beneath their feet, the words - "Everlasting joy".

I don't know what my message to the world means. I don't know where it comes from or why I chose it. Is this my goal in life? Is this what is experienced in the afterlife? Is this what I think God is like? Is this the potential I see in attending church? Why would I, having been through the darkness of a suicide attempt, and chronic episodes of feeble-mindedness and pain, choose to broadcast to strangers this sentiment? But I am certain of what I would want to say. And knowing that I can make this statement, even if I cannot live it fully, brings me peace of mind.

You want to be a person whose face, as much as possible, is turned toward the light.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Karen,

    I'm not around people a lot and when I am, the people I'm around are not particularly joyful. My friend Richard is often in a lot of emotional pain which leads me to send out a prayer for him after we've visited with each other. But mainly, it's just me with myself. I aspire to be joyful, but I go up an down. I try to remind myself of two Tibetan Buddhist phrases when I'm starting to sink and they are "Always maintain only a joyful mind." and "Be grateful to everyone." When I remember these phrases, they make me smile, though I'm no where near to embracing them, but just smiling and letting go of the Big Deal burden of life eases something inside of me.

    I understand what you mean about struggling with this illness and about being marked by it, but there's something inside of me that believes that to struggle is the human condition, even for those who appear joyful most of the time. There are definitely good things about life, but there are also painful things about it too. I have a feeling that there are lessons all around us. The negative lessons are obviously the hardest to learn and to accept. I resist, but there are times when I wish I would stop resisting and let go into it.

    I wish life could be everlasting joy, but I don't dare to hope for it on earth. Perhaps there is a heaven or Nirvana where souls can exist in peace and joy. That I do hope for.

    When I was acutely ill, my voices told me that earth was a school and a hospital. One of the things I want most is to deeply understand the meaning in my life and life in general. To me, understanding is healing. I keep reaching for that, but I don't think I will understand until the moment of my death or afterwards. I don't know why. Till then I'll hold on to the bits and pieces I find as if they were exotic shells washed up on a beach.



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