My mom passed away 13 months ago. She was beautiful and loving to all. She was never judgmental. I can’t remember a moment in her life that she was anything other than kind to perfect strangers. I miss her everyday. She was always on my side, no matter what. She was always cheering me on. If my picture was in the paper, you can be sure that the paper would be open to that page and resting on the bar with soft edges worn around the sides because she'd been showing it off to any and everyone who would look and listen, even though she could barely speak.
Once she passed, my heart hardened a bit. I became ruthless in seeking success. Not surprisingly, my relationships suffered. I lost a dear friend in a pointless argument. My husband and I, still in a new marriage, began clashing like titans, him constantly professing, “You’ve changed since your mom died.”
In her book, The Top Five Regrets of the Dying, Bronnie Ware, a hospice nurse, writes of the phenomenal clarity of vision people gain on their deathbed. Ware elucidated five common themes the dying spoke of. The fifth most common regret was: I wish that I had let myself to be happier.
It seems many people realize close to their final days that happiness is a choice. Out of fear, they spend their lives in their comfort zones, afraid to fail, afraid to be seen, afraid of uncertainty, afraid to be real. Deep within, they long to be silly again and delight in true laughter and joy.
In Brene Brown’s recent appearance on Oprah Winfrey’s Super Soul Sunday, she spoke of the emotion we fear the most as she discovered in her 12-year project of researching shame, vulnerability and courage. According to Brown, the most difficult emotion we experience is joy — not shame, humiliation, or fear — but joy. “When we lose our tolerance for vulnerability, joy becomes foreboding. We tell ourselves, 'I’m not going to soften into this moment of joy. I’m going to beat vulnerability to the punch.' And so we try to dress rehearse tragedy so we can do just that,” she said.
She describes an interview with a 60-year-old man who had just lost his wife of 40 years. He said, “My whole life, I never let myself be too excited about anything. If things didn’t work out, I wasn’t too disappointed. If they did work out, I was pleasantly surprised. The second I realized my wife was gone, the first thing I thought was, I should have leaned harder into those moments of joy.”
Last summer, I took a vacation with my family to the beach. My husband and I had a particularly grueling disagreement that resulted in my feeling ostracized from him and his friends. Our keys were lost. I spent the night crying, looking through a phone book to find a locksmith and dreaming of escaping what I deemed to be an abusive marriage, all the while cursing my husband under my breath as he participated in a dance party with his group of pals. I barely slept that night. I was so angry with him and miserable with my life.
When I finally drifted off, my mom came to me in my dream. She was a vibrant being of light intertwined with another being of light, who I instinctively knew was her best friend who was also deceased. They chanted one thing: Choose Joy. Choose Joy. Choose Joy. Choose Joy. They said it over and over again as they whizzed around me. Choose Joy. Choose Joy. They said it thousands of times. I knew my mother was saying, "You can leave this man or you can stay with him, but either way, honey, Choose Joy. Stop being such a bitch. Choose Joy. You have a choice here. Choose Joy."
So on Super Soul Sunday, when Brene Brown said, “The cultivation of gratitude and joy is the way home,” I was not at all surprised. My heart smiled. My soul fist-pumped an invisible, Yes!
I’m embracing this idea. I’m going to practice gratitude, and make no mistake about it: Gratitude is a practice. You have to actively practice it like you actively practice core work and sun salutations. And then you go through the day looking for it. This is a skill. It’s a much more worthwhile skill than floating from crow to astravakra.
We’re all chasing the extraordinary. But in our efforts to capture extraordinary, what we miss ultimately are the ordinary moments. And practicing gratitude for those ordinary moments is what brings us to our knees with true joy.
So last night, with my new practice in play, I snuggled up to my husband and apologized for all of the ways that I’ve taken him for granted. I pledged to him that I would stop clashing and continue focusing on how ultimately grateful I am to have our life together. I have a choice in the matter. I choose joy. I choose love. I choose happiness. And when I spoke these words to him, my big strong man began to cry. He wiped the tears away quickly. And together, we smiled. This was an ordinary moment in a life of joy.
Losing my mother put me in a ruthless state of fearing vulnerability; choosing joy brought me back to life. Give it a try. Choose Joy.