Cultivating resilient joy, whatever life throws at us

For the first time in my life, I thought a lot about dying. I didn't want to die, exactly. I was just tired of living, tired of being in pain, tired of feeling lost, tired of being a drain to the people around me. So I threw myself into a handful of unglamorous jobs and tried to be okay.

Henry David Thoreau aptly wrote that "the mass of men live lives of quiet desperation," and I was quietly desperate. I grew to hate the silence of early mornings. With nothing to distract me, my sadness and my failures would visit me. I tried to avoid their gazes, but when there was no one else in the room, I couldn't help but acknowledge their persistent presence, their unflinching glares. The quiet mornings that were once a balm to my soul now felt like a poorly fitting shoe chafing a raw blister, opening an old wound again and again.

One of my unglamorous jobs was working at a local coffee shop. I enjoyed the intense physicality of this job and the constant social interaction, which helpfully distracted me and kept me from wallowing. One morning, I rolled out of bed at 5:30 a.m. to open the shop. The temperature had fallen below zero, and I shivered as I clumsily unlocked the door to my car. It groaned in indignation as I sat down, and sputtered into life resentfully as I turned the keys. I plugged in my iPhone and put a playlist on shuffle, hoping some female folk music would wake me up gently.

As I turned out of my neighborhood, I thought of that December morning almost a year before. Jealousy, yes it was jealousy, of my past self for having access to such uncomplicated happiness and peace seized my chest. I felt like I had been a better person before, and sorrow had made something small and brittle of me. My own face seemed oddly unfamiliar as I caught sight of my care-weary eyes in the rearview mirror. Who was that? Could she ever be happy again? Feel lightness? As I crested a hill, a mountain vista greeted me, beckoning my eyes away from the rearview mirror. The silhouettes of the peaks loomed immense in the azure sky. A hint of pink, so faint it almost seemed like wishful thinking, peered over the mountains and breathed purple into the horizon. I felt thankful for a moment that even if I was miserable, the world went on being beautiful. Suddenly, the final line of the chorus (and title of the song) I was listening to caught my ears: "You are here."

Somehow, it shifted something in me. I had been trying to escape the blunt reality of what my life was, afraid some deep despair would set in if I stopped fighting. I was exhausting myself wishing life was other than what it was. Suddenly, I realized: I was here. It was no good wishing I was someone else, somewhere else. And maybe that was okay. When I arrived at the coffee shop, I left my car running and watched as the sun cast its rays on the mountainside. The rose hues of morning were no longer bashful but bold, illuminating the mountain, splashing each cloud with technicolor confidence. Millions of particles of frost sparkled on the asphalt of the parking lot in mundane glory. I listened to the song again.

When something, a song or a sunrise, pierces you straight to the heart, it's hard to put it into words. Perhaps this is why the great prophets in holy texts always sound so frantic trying to explain their spiritual experiences. "It was like a bird! It was on fire! The smoke filled the whole temple, which was also the universe!" Sometimes, moments of transcendent beauty can effect a transformation so complete that we're left bereft of words. We know something has changed, but how can we explain it? Without it sounding smaller and somehow less wonderful than it was? But I will try. Something in the alchemy of the sunrise and the gently chiding lyrics began a new thing in me. It wasn't a life lesson or a piece of great advice; it was a realization, an epiphany: this is life, the beauty and the pain together. A glorious sunrise coexistent with deep emotional pain, the utter brokenness of the world. One doesn't make the other untrue. This is always the bargain. If you get one, you get the other. And in that realization, I was offered a choice: Can you say yes to this? To life as it is? Will you live this beautiful, painful life?

That day, I decided to live. I mean this in two ways. The first is that I stopped thinking about dying. I decided that whatever came, it was my job to see this one strange and wonderful life through to the very end. Where I once cherished a jealousy of my idealized past self, I began to develop a healthy amount of FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) on my future life. I began to think of all the sunrises I hadn't seen, all the huevos rancheros I hadn't eaten, the hands I hadn't held, the work I hadn't done. When I think back on it now, I feel an almost wild relief. I wish I could take my past self, hold her face in my hands, and tell her all the wonderful things I would have missed if I'd given up on life: the birth of my first niece (named for me—Lilian Joy), moving to Scotland, falling in love with a good man, making some of the best friendships of my life, discovering the immense gratification of bread baking and Dutch ovens, getting to teach bright-eyed freshmen, and many, many sunsets.

But it wasn't merely that I chose not to die—I chose to live. It is possible to choose not to die, and still not to live. I think that is where the quiet desperation comes from, a halfhearted acquiescence to existence, which resents the whole ordeal of living too much to care about sunrises, huevos rancheros, or romance. It is the heart weary of breaking that chooses instead not to care. And if I'm honest, it is this kind of living that has proven the hardest for me. It is hard to live with skin in the game, to feel the cold. Accepting the full breadth of both the deep pleasure and deep pain of life can seem like too much for a heart to bear.

But that day, I acknowledged a hunger for something deeper. If I was going to be alive in the world, I wanted to drink deep of goodness. I wanted life to mean something. I wanted to be honest and open, and if there was something true and beautiful in this world, I wanted to know what it was, and to live in its light. I began to hold on to life with white knuckles and to say, like Jacob, that ancient wrestler with God and man, "I will not let you go unless you bless me" (Genesis 32:26). Is it too much to ask for blessing in this world? For happiness?

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus makes a list of "blessed" people. The Greek word used here is μακάριος, which could also accurately be translated as "happy" or "lucky," and is usually used of people who should be envied for their good fortune, wealth, or status in life. I've often heard people try to make some kind of distinction between happiness and joy, but Jesus makes no such distinction here. It is just plain old happy, lucky, satisfied, blessed. These are the people Jesus calls happy: The poor in spirit, Those who mourn, The meek, Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, The merciful, The pure in heart, The peacemakers, The persecuted, The insulted and falsely accused (Matthew 5:3–11).

The blessed ones, the happy ones, are not people born to easy circumstances or with a sunny disposition. They are not people who simply "look on the bright side." They are hungry, thirsty, sad, and yet somehow blessed. The happiness they have persists beneath the weight of living, even blossoms defiantly out of it. It seemed to me that these happy and blessed people were the opposite of shallow, sheeny positivity. They've seen the heart of reality, and it is good. It is blessed. Happy. Whatever they had, I wanted it. When New Year's came around again that year, I began to reassess the message I'd heard so clearly the previous year. I began to think that perhaps it wasn't an omen or a premonition; it was simply true. It was the steady, calm voice of wisdom: Life will be hard. You and the people you love will suffer. Be prepared. But now I realized there was another truth: there will also be sunrises.

This extract is from "Aggressively Happy", a book about finding the loveliness in life even in the midst of suffering, by Joy Marie Clarkson and out now from Baker Publishing.