My mother was joyful.
She had every reason not to be.
She was born during the Great Depression and went to elementary school as the country went to war. For the first 12 years of her life the country struggled with scarcity, rationing and fear.
Her mother was murdered just a year after she and my father married.
In the five months before she turned 30, her father-in-law and mother-in-law both died of cancer. Just a month after her 30th birthday her father died of a sudden heart attack.
She delivered a daughter into the world only to see her die the same day.
She lived through depression, wars, death, loss, alcoholism, the Cold War and double-digit inflation. She struggled with obesity and had to confront surgery for a brain tumor. She became a widow at 57 when my father suddenly died from leukemia. She spent the last 9 years of her life under the shadow of a blood disease that was projected to only allow her 1 or 2 years.
She had every reason to believe that life had not treated her well or fairly.
And yet… she was joyful.
Perhaps, as her son, my judgement is biased, but she was easily one of the most joyful people I have ever known.
Not all the time, of course. She grieved when my father died, cried over many losses and could, on rare occasions, get very angry. It was extremely rare, and I still laugh when I think about this, but one time in my late teens she got so angry at somebody that I actually had to teach her how to give them the middle finger.
I believe this is the first key piece of being joyful: fully experiencing the harsh moments in life when they arrive. Grief when loss occurs. Sadness when disappointed. Anger when injured, but quick to forgive. Allowing the emotion to have its moment and giving room and time to heal. Trusting that joy and happiness will soon return. (And, perhaps, finding better ways to express anger than using our middle fingers.)
The second thing that made my mother so joyful?
She genuinely loved everybody. She was uniquely interested in and cared for nearly everyone she met. She could tell you their stories because she had listened intently to them and cared about the storyteller, even if she barely knew them. I don’t think I understood this long ago, but I’d be willing to bet that no matter what the event or activity, she was in it for the stories.
But the root of her joy, I believe, was her fascination with even the simplest things. A butterfly. The burble of a creek. The color of a duck’s feather that delighted her so much she had it matched and made the color of our family room. The shape and texture of rocks. Hummingbirds. Words. Music. Her garden, or any garden: she could see the miracle in anything that grew in or on this earth.
The word “miracle” comes from the Latin “mirari”, which simply means “to wonder at.” My mother understood that miracles were present and accessible in even the simplest moments.
I believe this is the most important key: miracles do not need to be spectacular, Hollywood-produced affairs. They don’t have to be “walk on water” or “turn water into wine” moments – miracles can be as simple as the spiral of a snail’s shell, a toddler’s ticklish toes or the aroma of a rose.
She understood that we live in a world full of wonder. A wonder-ful world. Right in front of us, all day, every day. She understood that we don’t get to choose what life brings us, but we do get to choose our approach to life.
My mother chose to be joyful.
If I could ask her why she consistently chose joy, her likely answer would be “why would you choose otherwise?”.
And really, why would YOU choose anything less?
“We are here to bring to consciousness the beauty and power that are around us and to praise the people who are here with us.” – Annie Dillard, “The Meaning of Life: Reflections in Words and Pictures on Why We Are Here”