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A Reflection on Happiness and Joy

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About two weeks back, I hosted brunch for a few good friends.   All of my girlfriends are beautiful, gifted women, but I want to focus on Nadine today because she is so different from me. She’s Jamaican and I’m a Caucasian American mutt. She’s loud, expressive, and free. I’m reserved, cautious, and hold my emotions in check. She wears flowy dresses, with colorful flowers and wild designs. I like my muted, solid T-shirts and dark blue jeans. When Nadine sets her mind to something, she just does it. I, on the other hand, judiciously consider all possible angles before proceeding.

When I think about Nadine, I hear her buoyant laugh and instantly smile. Put simply, she radiates joy. It whooshes in with her like a gust of wind when she enters a room. It breezes behind her as she walks about, just like her vibrant long skirts. If you meet Nadine at a party, you will not forget her.

It’s important to note that Nadine is not frivolous. Life experiences have given her a depth and wisdom beyond her years. In fact, her troubles started before she was even born. Living in abject poverty, her mother was overwhelmed to learn of her fourth pregnancy. She scheduled an abortion but learned that the doctor canceled on her when she arrived. So, Nadine was born into a home with no running water, no bathroom, and no stove.   Her childhood chore was to walk one mile to retrieve clean water for her family, trudging back with the heavy load on her head.   For sport, she and her siblings would walk across the floor of their home, trying not to fall through the shoddy wood into the dirt below it.

At age 19, she and her fiancé purchased one-way tickets to America, where she knew she could make something of herself. “I need room to fly, “she declared to her mother. Unfortunately, her arrival was met with broken expectations and disappointments. The house where she was supposed to stay informed her they could host her fiancé, but not her.   They offered her a ticket back home, but she refused to go back.   She remembers how alone she felt as she sat on the stoop with her fiancé trying to figure out her next move until his ex-aunt through marriage agreed to take her in.   From there, her relationship with her fiancé ended, leaving her to nurse a broken heart while navigating a new culture that was nothing like TV or the movies.

When I first met Nadine about a year ago, it appeared to me that she had “made it” in America. She is a wife to an amazing man, mother to three talented children, and owner of a successful business. I would have never known what’s she’s been through by the way she smiles and laughs through everything. Even recently, she was evicted from her home very unexpectedly by someone considered to be a trustworthy friend. Amidst the hurt and betrayal, she was left scrambling to find a new home, all the while running a business and homeschooling. Yet, through it all, her joy held her up. At one point, the friend responsible for the situation expressed her admiration of Nadine’s attitude, commenting how she always exuded positivity and joy.  

I am so enthralled by Nadine’s story.  

Reflecting on it got me thinking about happiness versus joy. While they are used interchangeably in the English language, it’s been my experience that they are different. Happiness represents a fleeting moment of pleasure and contentment. It is dependent on external contributors, which are outside of our control. Anything could snatch it away at any moment.

Joy, on the other hand, comes from a place of strength within, after you have faced some darkness and beat it.   It rises to the top, like a voice saying “I will overcome.” It’s like helium that defies gravity and lifts you above the weight of the world. It is contentment, peace, and utter delight despite conflicts and adversity.    

Joy is transcendent.

I’m so thankful to have a Nadine in my life to inspire me. If she can rise out of difficulty and find joy, so can you and I.

Photo courtesy of Autumn Goodman via Unsplash

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