In Search of Joy: How to let presence be your guide

jar filled with marbles sitting on a table

“Why not joy?” my spiritual director asks me. In the face of this unrelenting year—laden with loss and injustice—why not eek out as much joy as possible? Find hope amid the pain? We call this a “both-and” in spiritual direction: the idea that opposite experiences exist side by side and that each has value in and of itself. Joy and sorrow. Anxiety and peace. Hope and fear. God is present in each one.

Her question gives me pause. I know my days are not an all-or-nothing kind of affair, but joy seems to evaporate these days. I am overcome by a desire to nail it down and make it last.

Take our marble joy jar. My son and I add marbles for experiences that recharge our hearts: watching the moon rise, biting into a cream-filled donut, playing Uno via Skype with my parents. Nothing is too big or too small. We watch in anticipation as the marbles rise. “Think of joy,” my spiritual director adds, “like a lightning bug. Alone, it is not very bright. But taken together, their light can fill up a night sky.”

The marbles are a good outward reminder, but the salve I am seeking is lit from within. I am reminded that presence—that enviable ability to not be three steps ahead of myself—is integral to joy. Being in the moment. Awake. Not buried under my thoughts, drafting the next round of work emails, planning the grocery run, or obsessing over what is wrong with me and why I am not more like this person or that person who seems to have it together and actually cooks meals that are not found in the freezer aisle.

Presence demands something of me that the marbles do not. It demands that I honor and accept my anxiety long enough for it to quiet down and allow me to experience the moment. To express delight when my son rips into his long-awaited Iron Spiderman costume instead of being fearful that he will not be ready for school on time (again). To watch the deliberateness of his fingers as he works the spandex over his pajamas. The sly smile as he pulls the mask over his head. “Mom, no one will know it is me.”

Magnified on a far greater scale, being present looks like my friend who read poetry to his dad in his final days as he lay in bed unable to speak. Or another friend who celebrated her sister’s newly shaved head one week and held her hand during a chemo treatment the next. Presence is spacious; it holds another person’s story without trying to fix it or change it, deny it, or make it wrong. The quintessential both-and, presence expands the moment—and us along with it.

Theologian Barbara Brown Taylor suggests that the spiritual practice of benediction will teach us how to slow down long enough to embrace something for what it is. And at the same time, expand the lens through which we see. Consider a stick you find lying on the ground. She writes:

“The first thing you do is pay attention. Did you make the stick? No, you did not. The stick has its own story… Is it on the ground because it is old or because it suffered a mishap? … What purpose did the stick serve? Did a bird sit on it? Did it bear leaves that sheltered the ground from the hottest summer sun? … At the very least, the stick participated in the deep mystery of drawing water from the ground, defying the law of gravity to deliver moisture to its leaves…”

When we offer a blessing, she explains, we do not confer holiness. Rather, we see the holiness that is already embodied—in the stick, in each other, in this moment and in the next—and recognize that it is a part of a far greater divine narrative that is constantly unfolding.

When I think of joy in the same way—unfolding, and no longer a singular event—I find it much easier to linger. I remember suddenly that I did not make the moon rise nor do I understand how it happens exactly. I notice how the moon’s radiance is sharpened and defined by the darkness of the night sky. I cherish that my son is willing to stand with me on the sidewalk and share in my awe. That he, whom I did not birth, ushers in far more joy and radiance than I ever knew was possible.

Tonight, as we drop another marble into our jar, I silently bless this moment, offering up a prayer of gratitude for how my heart has been expanded. And, for how we are all invited to seek joy in our midst.