As I was being wheeled into the anaesthetic bay for one of my surgeries, a nurse said to me: “Remember to do something that brings you joy every day.” By that stage I had figured that out for myself, but I still appreciated the advice. For the period of time that I was preoccupied with my survival, it seemed easier to prioritise activities I wouldn’t normally indulge in such as craft or walks because I could justify it as essential to my health and wellbeing. There were also a lot of things I said ‘no’ to because I didn’t need any unnecessary stress.
Now that the immediate danger has passed and I am no longer a cancer patient, it seems I have slipped back into the mindset that setting aside time for enjoyable but non-productive activities is possibly desirable but not a priority. I now intend to put this tendency right. Prioritising joyful moments is totally sensible as it supports my mental and physical health – and one thing I learned from all this was that being healthy is the goal that makes all other goals possible, and that without health all other goals are irrelevant. And why on earth would any person decide to subject themselves to ‘unnecessary stress’ in the first place? If it’s unnecessary, just don’t take it on! I don’t need stress before, during or after any disease!
I have gone back to living more as if my life depended on being joyful every day, mainly because it does, and also because I want my life to be worth living and not be a dreary slog to the end. Besides, I read somewhere that when you are in a positive mindset you are also 31 per cent more productive. (How anyone can even quantify that I don’t know, but it sounds like a good excuse to have fun).
I recognise a distinction between happiness and joy. We all know what happiness is. Happiness is sliding in between crisp, clean sheets with a good book; the sound of rain on a tin roof, a perfect ocean view from the balcony of the pub, cuddling my cat, pumpkin soup with fresh bread on a winter’s day… you get the picture. Happiness is having your ducks in a row; it’s the natural response to things going our way, pleasing surrounds, pleasant company, comfort and satisfaction. Happiness relies on external circumstances being a certain way, so most of us try to engineer our lives to produce the ideal conditions for happiness to occur often. There’s nothing wrong with that, but if external circumstances don’t line up with our desires then we are left unhappy.
Joy, on the other hand, can occur while being stuck by the side of the road in scorching heat cleaning up your child’s vomit with your husband, while feeling unwell yourself after a horror family holiday. When suddenly you realise how blessed you are to have your child, how there is no one in the world other than your husband with whom you would rather clean up vomit, and how deeply satisfied you are with the way the story of your life is unfolding – that is when you touch joy. You aren’t happy in that moment, but you become aware of the well of joy deep below the surface within you.
That story isn’t mine – I don’t have a husband or kids – I borrowed it from a friend. I’ve found that most people’s peak experiences and the turning points of their relationships don’t happen on holiday at a luxury resort, or on a picture-perfect date when your eyeliner is flawless. Those life-changing moments of deep gratitude can occur while driving around looking for a park at Christmas time, or sitting waiting in the emergency department, or on a routine Tuesday evening after work when you are expecting nothing extraordinary. This is when the magic happens, because every moment you’re alive is a miracle and an opportunity to live more fully.
If you expand your consciousness beyond the surface appearance of the situation, you will find the constant undercurrent of all life which is joy. Joy that pulses through the Earth, and through you as one of Earth’s creatures, wanting to be discovered. It doesn’t take hours of meditating in a cave to find joy. If you notice feeling a spark of love or gratitude or wonder – grab hold of that. Recognise what you are feeling and amplify it within your heart, just for a moment. Then let the influx of joy from that moment sustain you until the next moment. It won’t be far away if you are expecting to find it.