Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds. — James 1:2
In the wake of my father’s death, I found myself doing something strange. I identified anything good that had come of his death, and clung to it. I know this sounds crazy — to search for goodness in something terrible; but there was so much terrible in my life, that I needed something — anything — to ease it all. I was blessed to have been able to see so many people I love gathered at my home and at the memorial services. I was blessed to be in Colorado for the birth of my first nephew. I was blessed to have some of my college debt forgiven because my father had taken out the loans in his name. I was blessed to spend the most difficult and challenging months of our lives at my mother’s side. At the time I called this search for goodness finding the blessings; but now I think of it as choosing joy.
I find myself coming back to James 1:2 over and over again. Throughout my life, it has meant many different things to me. When I first read it, I was drawn in by the idea that trials develop perseverance — that adversity brings growth. Later, I read it as an admonition of grumbling about my struggles in life rather than facing them and growing through them. I wrote recently, of a time when it gave me strength and hope about where I am and where I’m going — that perseverance is both something I’m developing and something I’ve developed. But as I read this verse today, it speaks to me of choosing joy.
There is a scene in Romeo and Juliet that I think about often. It’s act 3, scene 3, just after Tybalt and Mercutio have been killed and the prince has sentenced Romeo to banishment. Romeo is hiding in Friar Lawrence’s cell and the friar returns to tell Romeo of his fate. Romeo goes on to lament and says that banishment is as bad as death because there is no life beyond Verona’s walls. The friar keeps trying to get Romeo to see that this sentence is a generous one, but he is having none of it. Finally, when Romeo draws his sword and holds the tip to his own chest, the dear friar snaps. He admonishes Romeo for shaming his shape, his love and his wit with this threat to kill himself. He reminds him of just how many things and people he has to live for and smacks Romeo as he lists them, ending each sentence with “There art thou happy?!” Near the end come my favorite lines:
A pack of blessings lights up upon thy back;
Happiness courts thee in her best array;
But, like a misbehaved and sullen wench,
Thou pout’st upon thy fortune and thy love:
Take heed, take heed, for such die miserable.
The friar is telling Romeo to choose joy.
It can sometimes be hard not to think of joy as something that happens to us. Like we can only experience it when there is something external that influences it — when someone is kind to us or we do something fun or accomplish something difficult. But what I think James and the friar are trying to tell us is that joy is a choice. James tells us to consider it pure joy, not simply that it is pure joy. Even in trials, we can, and should, choose joy.
I have a little way I check in with myself in the morning on the walk to work: I ask myself if the sun is on my face or in my eyes. If the sun is on my face, I’m choosing joy. If the sun is in my eyes, I’m not. It’s the exact same external experience, but it’s my choice how I respond to it. On days the sun is in my eyes, I try to feel its warmth on my face by the time I get to work. It is amazing what this practice has done for my psyche.
Choosing joy can be so hard, though. When you’re in the middle of trials, everything seems terrible and out to get you. It all seems like it can’t and won’t ever get better. But if you can open yourself to finding the blessings, you can find hope. Finding a way to take a step away from our pain to look at the landscape can be transformative.
To me, choosing joy means taking time to find it. It means listening for the sound of birds, or celebrating a silly holiday to its fullest, or calling a good friend just so she can make you laugh. It means taking stock of your circumstances and choosing to focus on the good stuff, rather than the bad. It means feeling the sun on your face and not in your eyes.
Brooke Natalie Blough lives in Philadelphia, Pa., and works at the University of Pennsylvania. She is a member of West Philadelphia Mennonite Fellowship and writes at Now Faith, where this blog first appeared.