Choosing Joy

I do not feel that I am a naturally optimistic person. I can be funny, satirical, laugh easily with friends. But my natural set point is one of worry, anxiety, stress and foreboding. All my life I have replayed the past in my head rehashing something that has happened, or more commonly, attempting in vain to see ahead, to understand how a pain or error today can affect my future. For large chunks of my teenage and adult years, these mindsets have limited me in what I will attempt, in what I risk.

I grew up in an environment immersed in anxiety and worry. Through no fault of her own, my mother was and is a highly anxious person, who constantly regretted the past and worried about the future. Whether through nature or nurture, I have found these patterns are hard to break. So much of my headspace is analyzing everything that has or could go wrong and trying to see my way around it. To an extent, this is not a bad process. When we learn from our mistakes, we can make changes to avoid them in the future. When we foresee possible problems, we can make choices to steer clear of them. But so often worry and regret take over our lives, stalling us from any action at all, keeping us “safe” by never letting us try. And all of this occupation with worry and anxiety keeps our mind from truly focusing on what matters, the life we have in front of us right now.

A couple of months ago I read Deena Kastor’s Let Your Mind Run in hopes that it would help me harness my mental strength when running tough races. What I found however, is a lesson in life that went much deeper than running.  Through a slow, intentional practice in positivity and gratitude, Kastor changed her mindset from one fueled by negativity, set limitations and a “need” to succeed, to one of love, acceptance, patience, optimism, and a hunger to test herself. I have always struggled to control my thoughts, to intentionally choose my reaction or my mood to a situation. I must admit I didn’t believe it was always possible to change your natural response to stress. But here was Kastor, describing an intentional choice in her reaction, intentionally choosing to be grateful, intentionally choosing to be joyful. It wasn’t an immediate change, it wasn’t a quick lesson. It takes years to relearn a thought pattern, years to alter your gut reactions. But reading about her process, her slow transformation into a more intentional, grateful, and joyful person, gives me hope.

I have been trying to intentionally practice joy on a daily basis now. Some days it is easier than others. When a run goes well, I check off all my to dos, the schedule stays in place, and everything gets done, it is easy to be joyful and grateful. But when, as is more often the case, some niggle crops up in what should be an easy run, I’m always seeming behind, and the house erupts into the chaotic mess only a 7 year old and a 60 pound dog can create, joy is elusive and gratitude is easily replaced with impatience and anger.

I have a reminder on my bathroom mirror, a reminder to choose joy. Choose… not Be. And Joy… not Happiness. To me those little words hold a big distinction. The Reggae song may tell us to “be happy.” But happiness is a feeling brought on by outside forces. We are happy when we eat our favorite food. We are happy when the weather is beautiful. We are happy when our child is kind and considerate and cleans up his toys. We are happy when we get time away with our special someone. In all of these situations happiness is brought on by outside forces, we can “be happy” because we find happiness in what is happening to us. But to me joy is internal. Joy is how we consciously decide to react, no matter what is happening in the world around us. We choose joy, it doesn’t happen to us. And we can choose joy even when everything seems to be coming down around us. We can choose joy when our child misbehaves, when we have deadlines, when the house is a disaster, when we go to bed feeling like we worked hard all day but have absolutely nothing to show for it. We can choose joy when injured, or stressed, or frustrated. Joy is a choice, and no one and nothing can take that away.

And so I am trying to choose joy, consciously, intentionally, daily. I try to reset and frame each situation with gratitude, love, patience, and joy. It has not been easy. I fail frequently. Many times my ability to choose joy is inhibited by hormonal shifts beyond my control. More often than I like I slip back into my old patterns of coping, full of stress and anxiety. But on those hard days, I try to give myself grace. For it is not possible to relearn a lifetime’s process of thinking in a few weeks. And it is also not possible to browbeat and regret myself into joy. I will make mistakes, and I will fail, but that is part of the process, that is how we learn. And to miss the opportunity to choose joy today because of regret from past failures to make that choice, well that misses the entire point of the process. So today I forgive myself for my anxiety, forgive myself for my worry and my regret, forgive myself for my stress and my anger. Today I forgive myself for every time in the future that I will fail to embrace this new positive lifestyle. Instead, today I simply choose joy.

Pain

Pain. It shows up in many forms. From the constant ache of an aging body and well used limbs, to the acute stab of a fresh injury or illness. From the lingering lethargy of emotional fatigue, to the soul crushing weight of depression. From the heart-racing fear of constant anxiety, to the incapacitating collapse of a panic attack. From small daily disappointments and failures, to life altering losses and disasters. Our pain can originate physically, emotionally, psychologically, in every way imaginable. But it almost always is interpreted by our brains as a physical manifestation in some form. We feel it in our core. It’s a constant reminder we are human and we are alive.

In the modern world we tend to avoid pain. We consider it a four letter word (yes that kind). Something to be removed from our life, handled, fixed, or at least covered up and shoved aside. And so we turn to numerous devices in our quest to remove our pain. We spend thousands of dollars on prescription drugs and treatments. We rest and rehab, avoid movement or activity. At times we turn to illegal drugs to numb our pain, both physical and emotional. We drink, sometimes a lot. We work, often more than we should. We workout, again at times more than advised. We literally run away from our pain. We log on. We binge watch shows. We control food, we let food control us. We gamble. We party. Everyone chooses their own vice. Pretty much everything that can hold us in an addiction is in some way related to the existence of either physical, emotional, or psychological pain and our desire, our need, to manage it.

In a fully authentic voice, I must admit that I am constantly in pain. I have been an anxious child who grew into a highly anxious adult. I have faced bouts of depression, especially surrounding our miscarriages and just after my son was born. I have felt the loss of our babies so acutely that I physically puked, and mentally caved into myself. I have struggled with the pain of sleep deprivation when my mind literally will not let me sleep. And throughout my entire adult life, I have constantly had something physically hurting, from a rib, to an elbow, to an ankle, to a foot, to a knee. It doesn’t matter if I run or stretch, strengthen or massage, or just rest. Something will always hurt and I am having to learn to accept that. Rarely does it hurt enough to limit my movement or change my gait, rarely does it keep me from heading to the road or trail. Whether this constant pain is a manifestation of my anxiety, or a marker of my body’s high reactivity to discomfort, I am still searching for answers. But the constant aches and pains help me in many ways to push through other pains, one pain replaces the other I guess.

My personal coping method with pain involves running more miles than many consider humanly possible, spending hours, and at times full days on the trail. A body exhausted from hard work is free, it is relaxed, it doesn’t have the energy to worry or stress, it is home in itself and at peace. At least that is my truth. Yes, running ultras creates its own kind of pain. Pain from fatigue, pain from constant motion, pain from niggling injuries or overuse. But those physical pains are something I can understand, I can wrap my mind around them. They make sense. I have pushed my body and therefore I will hurt. They put other pains in perspective, or at least drown them out for a time. They keep my mind more focused on the present.

Everyone has their own prescription against pain. You could argue that some are better, “healthier,” than others. Certainly, I would not advise hard drugs or excessive alcohol as a healthy coping mechanism. But is constantly seeking praise from others, or being so plugged into social media that you don’t see those in front of you healthy? Is allowing food to control us in whatever form, whether excess or restriction, healthy? Is working, or gambling, or sitting in front of the TV, day in and day out healthy? Or more personally, is running for over a day healthy?

Everything in moderation, they say. Balance is key, they say. But the world is a painful place, and the human experience is defined by pain. Pain is not in moderation, it is not in balance, and so we often self-medicate in ways that are equally weighted. Maybe, when we recognize how we smother our own pain, we can give more grace to those who struggle to cope in ways we would not choose and do not understand. And maybe in that grace, we can find a connection with others that helps us all live a more fulfilling life, less controlled by our pain. We cannot escape it, we cannot remove it. We can only learn to continue on with our pain, not let it cripple us, but move forward. Learn to find joy, not in spite of pain, but maybe because of it. Because of what it teaches us, because of what we learn about ourselves, and because of how it changes us, hopefully into a better version of us.