Today, I wish you joy! Notice I didn't say happiness, nope, happiness is something very different from joy. Sometimes I stop and think back over my life, and I realize quite often I remember moments of joy, even during dark days when I was not happy. We don't need happiness to have joy.
I remember one Christmas, seventeen or so years ago, in the late '90s, when almost everyone I knew was struggling financially from the affects of the downturn in the economy. I had a friend, whom I will call Kay. Kay had known a lifetime of struggles. She was in a very strong marriage, but had children who were battle-scarred from a previous teenage marriage. Her fifteen year old daughter, Elise, lived with relatives in another state, 2,000 miles away.
As Thanksgiving approached, I was talking to Kay one day, and we were discussing how difficult and expensive and depressing Christmas could be. She began to weep as the conversation turned to her far away daughter. She said she wished she could have all of her children with her for Christmas, but she knew that financially that would never work out for her family. I was struggling financially, myself, but her mother's love resonated deep within my heart, and I decided to find out if there would be a way to bring Elise to Michigan for a Christmas surprise.
Her daughter loved the idea, and the finances came together to purchase a plane ticket to arrive on December 23.
We kept the secret well, and when December 23 arrived, I could barely contain my excitement! Elise boarded her plane 2,000 miles away early in the morning. I made plans to take her to Kay's house, as soon as she arrived, and sing Christmas Carols outside the front door. I could just imagine Kay's face when she saw her beautiful Elise standing on the doorstep singing merrily with my family.
In case you don't know, I grew up in Southern California. It took many, many years for me to adjust to the fact that the weather must be considered as a factor when making plans in Michigan. And the weather became a huge factor that day. It began to snow in the afternoon. Soon it was a total white-out. I tried repeatedly calling the airline to find out if the flight was delayed. The line was busy, and I was unable to get through.
At that time, the internet was barely a resource. Our service was dial-up and slow, and airlines had not yet jumped on that bandwagon as far as posting flight statuses. After what felt like a hundred phone calls, I got through to the airline, and I was told that all flights into Detroit were canceled. I began to panic a little bit. I was responsible for a minor who was flying alone, and I had no idea where she was going to be spending the night. I was terrified at the thought she might be sleeping alone in an airport.
As I was trying to figure out who to call next, Kay suddenly came knocking at my door. She was nearly ready to cry and said she desperately needed to talk. We sat down, and the tears began to flow as she told me she had had a funny feeling that Elise was not okay, so she called her home. She said that Elise's aunt had acted very strangely on the phone, and would not let her speak to Elise, but told her she needed to contact the pastor of the church. I have no idea where that came from, because he was not in on the surprise in any way.
Kay said she had called the pastor, and he acted strangely, as well, and did not help her. She knew something was wrong, and she had a feeling nobody wanted to tell her that her daughter was in jail or in some other kind of big trouble. She wept hopelessly in my arms, as my mind raced crazily. I said I would call the pastor to find out if he knew anything.
He told me he had called the relatives, and they said that Elise had told them that she knew her mom, and that no matter what happened, nobody was to breathe a word and spoil the surprise. I hung up the phone, and hugged Kay. It wasn't hard to sympathize, I was worried out of my mind that this surprise was going all haywire, and I didn't want to say anything to Kay, until I knew Elise was fine.
Finally, Kay left to do some Christmas shopping for her other children, and i began frantically calling the airlines again. It was literally hours later when I reached somebody who could tell me that the flight had been sent to LaGuardia in New York, where the passengers would spend the night, and it would arrive in Detroit sometime in the afternoon on Christmas Eve. After explaining I was concerned about a minor flying alone, the airline representative made some calls, and found out Elise was going to be shuttled to a nearby hotel for the night.
Cell phones were a pretty new thing in those days. They were expensive to call from, and service was spotty. Elise had one, though, so I began calling it repeatedly. Eventually, late in the evening, she called me back. She was very worried that the surprise might be spoiled. I told her what had been happening with her mother, and that she better call right away, or I felt like I needed to let her know what was happening. Elise was adamant that she had come that far, and she desperately wanted to surprise her mother. She called Kay as soon as we hung up.
Kay called me after talking to Elise and said that Elise had told her she had just been out at a party, and that the family didn't want to worry Kay. Of course, Kay's motherly instincts told her she was being lied to. She said she was comforted that she had heard from Elise, but she was very sad because she knew something terrible had happened, and Elise was covering it up.
Because Elise's plane was coming in early the next afternoon, and we had already lost a day of their visit, I offered to watch Kay's other children while she and her husband did their last-minute Christmas shopping. Money was so tight, we pretty much all waited until the last minute to finish up. I knew at some point Elise would be at my house, and they could be reunited there. Kay agreed, although she told me she did not feel like dealing with Christmas that year.
The next morning, she and her husband dropped off the children and left to shop. Kay kept her eyes downcast, and they were filled with tears as she left. it was hard to see how stressed out she was. Elise arrived in the early afternoon, and about three hours after she arrived, Kay and her husband returned to my house to pick up the children.
Kay was sitting in the van, and decided not to get out. I ran outside and told her that I had a Christmas present for them, and that they both had to come into the house to get it. Kay stopped just inside the front door, and kept her eyes on the ground, clearly depressed and embarrassed.
Elise came up the stairs from the basement and stopped about three feet in front of her mother. Kay never even looked up. I began to sing, "We wish you a Merry Christmas, we wish you a Merry Christmas...". Elise took a step forward, and her shoes entered Kay's peripheral vision. Kay took a deep breath, and slowly her eyes traveled up Elise's body, until they reached her face, and everybody burst into tears of joy!!
I will never forget that moment, or that Christmas. Life was difficult and full of challenges. and quite often, we were not happy. But we had joy!
Those moments of our life when we experienced pure joy are stored up in a reservoir of joy. Joy doesn't depend on outward circumstances, it comes from an understanding deep within us, of the good that is in this world, even among the bad. It does not depend on our happiness, it is fed and filled by the positive beauties around us. It's always there, even in my darkest moments when I was desperately unhappy - I have bright spots of memories that flood my being with joy. It is filled and fueled daily by my relationship with God.
It is my prayer that your joy reservoir continues to be filled with the good things in this life, and that no matter what happens around you, your reservoir will continue to be filled - with every sunrise, sunset, and beautifully unexpected pleasure this life brings.
It is rather unfortunate we live in a society in which truly beautiful people are often overlooked. Some of the most beautiful and amazing people I have known have been people who were not necessarily the most attractive on the outside. Many times, people put a great deal of time and effort into achieving a certain acceptable look, while neglecting to develop an inner beauty that will actually last. I have known far too many young ladies and men who are at what is considered the bottom of the socially-significant ladder. It makes me sad to hear them acknowledge their lack of worth in a society in which physical attraction frequently matters more than character.
So many of those teens have an amazing amount of character. They have resilience and courage that many of their peers would struggle to achieve. I've known young, discarded individuals who watched their parents die, or whose parents simply left. I've watched them endure teasing and bullying - and not only by other teens, but sometimes by adults as well - and yet they manage to keep a gentle spirit and strive to defend those less fortunate.
I have watched children and teens cope with disabilities which cause others to fear them because fearing them is easier than trying to understand them. I have listened to them speak of the hurt and pain and frustration every day life brings. And yet, when defenses are dropped, and we are able to talk about other important things in life - I find that the majority of these young folks have such beautiful souls.
They see suffering around them, and want to help. They have concerns for people in far away countries, and those in their own schools and homes. They cry when they see others being bullied and picked on, acknowledging they have walked in those very same shoes. I have known young people who are hilariously funny when they are given the freedom to be who they really are - and they are no longer masked by the shyness that accompanies a lifetime of victim-hood. I have grown to love the quirks and oddities that sometimes accompany social disorders like autism, and to realize those human beings are often participating in the world on a level deeper than the rest of us realize. They observe and absorb and contemplate and search to find the good in other human beings, and to understand this often-confusing world.
I've watched them become excited at the prospect of doing something kind for their peers, and I've seen them work hard to raise money to help out those less fortunate. I've known beautiful, amazing young people who never give pause to the physical attractiveness, abilities, or disabilities of those around them - they simply accept everyone into their presence without judgment or malice.
In a world in which most people fill every precious moment of their schedules with busy-ness and activities, it is difficult to allow time to get to know others, and particularly those who are outside our personal bubbles AND who can be quickly judged and dismissed because of their very different appearances. I wish I knew the secret to helping people care. I wish I knew how to encourage others to take a chance on people who are outside their accustomed circles. I wish I could re-define what is considered normal, and I could abolish the generally accepted paradigm that the pursuit and attainment of physical beauty somehow reflects the character of an individual.
In a perfect world there would be no such thing as imperfections, flaws, and abnormal. In a perfect world there would simply be people living life among other people. And everyone would be equally valued, accepted, and loved.
Without a doubt, peanuts are one of my favorite salty snacks to enjoy. I am so very thankful I do not have peanut allergies, because I don't know what I would do if I could not eat peanuts! I have noticed something, though. Every so often when I am feasting on those delicious little nuggets of protein, I will get one that tastes potently bitter. I guess, like anything else, they can't all be good.
I usually will make a face when I unexpectedly eat a bad one. Sometimes I grab a quick drink, or even more peanuts, to try to get rid of the nasty aftertaste. One thing I don't do, is throw away the rest of the peanuts. They are not cheap, and it would be silly to throw away the entire jar or can, just because one tasted bad.
What I would not do with a can of peanuts, I see happening in the society in which I live. Only it happens in regards to people. I'm not naive; I know there are people with bad intentions and hatred in their hearts in the world - the extremists. And in another vein, I know there are people whose differences make us feel very uncomfortable and removed from our comfort zones - some disabled people. I get that, but we step onto a slippery slope when we decide we must judge entire groups of people in terms of those we don't like, or who challenge our comfort zones.
When we use one brush to paint everyone the same, we begin to step out of our roles as fellow human beings, and into the roles of judges and judged. Superior and inferior. Hater and hated. The statement: "We fear that which we do not understand" rings very true in the world today. I see it happening in terms of race and in the world where I spend a significant amount of time - helping those with disabilities.
One of the components of my job includes finding employers who will allow my students to work for them three afternoons each week. The students are paid minimum wage, but not by the employer - by money from the funds that support the training. Basically, what I am offering is a free employee. I cannot count the number of times, as soon as I mention that the students all have some type of disability - even when I say that many of them are hidden disabilities, like a math or reading learning disability - the conversation has shifted and management has made a split-second decision not to give even one student the opportunity to work with their organization. Sometimes they have had bad experiences in the past, I understand that, but at the same time I think we miss out on a lot of great opportunities when we automatically shut a group of people out of our bubbles.
Stereotyping really does come from a place of ignorance. And people who are highly educated can be just as ignorant when it comes to allowing our society to be made up of a broad range of diverse individuals. A truly inclusive society would be such a beautiful thing to be a part of, but it will only come with education.
It will only happen if those of us who are willing to accept others' differences are willing to stand up and begin to educate those who don't understand, and those who are less willing. We need to infiltrate comfort zones, and educate whenever we find ignorance. And we need to do it with love and understanding. It is not easy to change the way people think. It is not easy to persuade people to allow others inside the bubble. It is not easy to assuage the fears of the unknown, and things we do not understand. It must be done with love and compassion, because if we try to force it by bashing and criticizing others, the process will move more slowly. It is not easy.
But it's not impossible, either. Bit by bit, person by person, we can share our hearts - and encourage others to open theirs. If I won't discard an entire bag of peanuts because I don't like some, I certainly won't discard an entire group of people because of the actions of some. It's time to bust the bubbles of exclusion. Are you in?