A few years ago, newspapers published the story of an old man who lived in extreme poverty. Filthy and ragged, he seldom emerged from his dingy, roach-infested apartment. After he died, an examination of his meager belongings revealed the extent of his poverty.

Then someone made a startling discovery. Thousands of dollars, totaling close to a half million, were found hidden under his mattress.

When I think of joy, I think of this man and his dismal life. Does joy often lie just beyond our fingertips, unclaimed like the money under his mattress even though we have full access to it? If so, why don’t we claim what’s rightfully ours? Why would we allow opportunities for happiness to languish while we live in poverty of spirit?

“What brings you joy?” is a question people ask, and my answer varies, depending on my most recent experiences. My children bring me joy (usually) and my grandchildren, and my husband and our life together.

Money (yes, that’s right, I admit it) brings me joy because I like being able to buy and do what I want. Money gives me the illusion of freedom.

Nature, hiking, kayaking, watching the deer roam through our yard, fill me with the joy of just being, at a given moment, alive in the universe.

But the same things that bring joy also bring distress. A lot of times as a young mother I wanted to tear my hair out and run away from home. Taking care of children is difficult, demanding work, not for the faint of heart. Fear creeps in when you care so much. Are they safe? Are they healthy? Are they going to be okay?

When they’re grown you ask the same questions: Are they safe? Are they healthy? Are they okay? in addition to new ones: Why don’t they call? Why are they making those decisions? Was I a good enough parent?

Money that brings freedom can also imprison with chains of worry, envy and materialism. There are always others who have more. A taste of financial freedom brings fear of losing it and fear stifles the spirit of adventure that emboldens us to find joy in life’s uncertainties.

Depression and anxiety can strip us of the ability to discover joy in activities that used to bring us pleasure. External circumstances mean little when this sort of internal war is raging.

I wrote in my book When a Believer Marries a Nonbeliever: How to Grow Together in Love, Faith and Joy, “We continue to rely on the externals: other people, material wealth, health and beauty to supply our happiness. We overlook the fact that happiness based on externals can be snatched away as suddenly as the first financial crisis or disappointment with our spouse.”

Real and lasting joy is affected as much by our internal attitudes and perspectives as it is by our outward circumstances. How we view things becomes a reality that profoundly influences our ability to experience joy and happiness.

A friend recently told me he had always thought of his childhood as a major impediment to happiness. He grew up dirt poor in a trailer park surrounded by communities of people who were far wealthier. Sometimes he didn’t have shoes. Frequently he felt neglected. Resentment and envy flaired, even after he had become a successful businessman.

Then a few years ago he had a new thought. He remembered as a child running free in the neighborhood, exploring with friends, playing at the ocean’s edge, feeling the sand beneath his bare feet and the sun on his shirtless back, and realized these were some of the best experiences of his life. His thinking shifted, and with it his entire view of how his childhood had affected his life.

Joy that’s real and lasting grows from somewhere deep within. It allows us to experience the happiness found in transient, fleeing moments because we’ve developed a perspective that won’t be hijacked by negativity.

My joy stems from faith in a good and loving God. Anxiety and fear and depression have sometimes encroached, threatening to rob me of happiness, but I know those imposters are not the truth of who I am meant to be and have no lasting value or impact. Jesus said “These things I have spoken to you so that My joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.” (John 15:11)

Maybe you’re not religious and your joy springs from a belief in the ultimate good of the universe, or in the resilience of your own spirit in the face of adversity. Lasting joy born from a place deep within enables us to find happiness in everyday experiences. It’s a spiritual contentment that acknowledges the negative but chooses the positive.

These things bring me joy: a sunset draping the sky with color, my husband saying I love you, the support of my writing community, the sun warm on my face, a dinner carefully prepared, books, humor, laughter, the list is endless. But what empowers me to experience the fullness of these things is the joy that resides within, despite external circumstances. Unlike the poor man in the first part of this story, I choose to reach beneath the mattress and take hold of the life I have access to.

Writer, editor, publisher, journalist, author, columnist, believer in enjoying my journey and helping other people enjoy theirs. bknicholson@att.net

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