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  • Natalie

Relearning Joy

When Joy Feels Foreign

When I was a little girl, I loved so many things. I was enchanted by the sound of thunder, enthralled by my little dolls, amazed at how the sky turned green in a tornado, enamored by my sisters singing together. The world was a wondrous place, full of life and newness and a million things to discover.

As I experienced more and more harm, my heart withdrew. It was too dangerous a world to show my heart to the world, too dangerous to dance in the rain or paint my nails mismatch colors or have ice cream running down my face. My world became small, controlled, predictable; it was necessary for my survival.

My little self did everything she could to survive a horrible situation and I’m proud of her for how she survived. But because of that pain, I started to believe that joy was a far-off dream and would never again be my reality. I thought I had suffered too much to be happy again. But recently, joy and delight returned in a powerful way. It is delightfully uncomfortable and so very foreign and I invite you to peer into my little adventure.

Back to November

In November I began encountering how much I had healed. I realized, much to my chagrin, that I had more energy. I had more time. I wanted to do more. I was terrified of that realization. But that means I have to actually do things now. It was a change I wasn’t anticipating and I knew in theory I should be happy I was improving, but all I could see was more work and a different kind of discomfort.

I read all about how hard trauma recovery is but not once did I read that relearning joy would be part of that journey. Joy can bring up many feelings: panic, fear, sadness, anger, frustration. We can panic that our joy will be stolen from us. We can fear the disappointment when it begins to fade. We can feel sad over how many years we spent feeling miserable, unhappy, or discontent. We can be frustrated by how uncomfortable joy makes us feel; growing our tolerance for emotions extends to both negative and positive emotions.

I felt all of these things. I was angry it had taken me so long to feel happy. I was frustrated that joy was such an uncomfortable and foreign feeling. I panicked many times, thinking that if I was too happy, then my joy would be taken from me, almost like I was doing something wrong by not suffering anymore. I was sad for all the years I spent believing joy was impossible for me. Feeling joy again, hoping for the future for the first time, involved a deep grieving over how my life had been; it wasn’t my fault I felt hopeless all those years. Thankfully, in midst of all of the sadness and anger, two little moments encouraged me to lean into the joy, lean into the newness, and to be unafraid of these foreign feelings.

I went out to my car. The ground was still wet from the rain earlier in the day and I noticed a little worm out on the driveway. I couldn’t tell you how long it had been since I last noticed the worms coming out in the rain and it made me laugh. It was such a silly little worm, a tiny little thing. It was so delightful, so delightful in fact, that I almost laughed during Father’s homily at Mass. Just a silly little worm, such a little thing to bring so much delight.

Earlier in the week, I was out on a long walk, talking to the Lord about all my anger and frustration, when I noticed a robin in the tree. It had to be the plumpest robin I had ever seen. The sight of it was so absurd. I laughed at the thought of it trying to fly and wondered how it even managed to sit on its little branch without it breaking. It took me out of my pain for a bit and I laughed. I laughed at the silly little worm and the plump little robin.

When we heal, it not only frees us to function better, to form better relationships, to be a better spouse, it frees us for joy. A year ago, I couldn’t have laughed at the worm. I couldn’t have delighted in that robin. Healing is not creating some perfectly healed version of ourselves that’s all big and strong and unaffected by everything; healing increases capacity for life. It restores our joy to us, restores our ability to delight, because our energy is no longer tied up in just surviving. We are freed to “Come, share your Master’s joy!” (Matthew 25:23).

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