What gets in the way of joy? Some thoughts on fear, guilt, and “fleshly desires”

Friday, after a full day of work and a couple of juicy conversations with faraway friends, I headed to my hammock, tucked under two giant maple trees in my newly landscaped backyard. The late afternoon sun peeked through pinholes between the canopy of leaves, bouncing across my body now and then when the breeze rustled through. I hadn’t planned to stay long (there was supper to cook and other mom-duties-as-required), but after a few deep breaths helped me release the day, it was too comfortable to leave.

I texted my daughter (inside the house) and asked if she’d be so kind as to bring me a glass of wine. A short while later, she came with a full glass, letting me know that she’d been painting in the basement (she’s an art student) and had come all the way upstairs to fetch the wine and bring it to me. I thanked her profusely and grinned. Then I sipped slowly, read my book, and decided we’d be having supper late.

Eventually, I dragged myself out of the hammock and cooked supper on the barbecue, eating with my daughters on our new patio. Once they’d gone back inside, though, I turned on the twinkle lights and returned to the hammock. When it was too dark to read, I propped my phone on the small table beside me and watched Netflix until bedtime. Only then did I go inside.

If you’ve been following me on social media, you know how much I’m loving this new backyard. It was nothing but weeds bordered by a fallen-down hedge until a few weeks ago. Now it’s a sanctuary and I plan to spend as much time here as I can before the snow flies. (I’m currently writing this in the backyard – it’s my summer-office.)

As I’ve been enjoying this space – both alone and with friends and family – I’ve been contemplating my relationship with joy. This backyard brings me pure, unadulterated joy. It was something I’d been dreaming of for years, but only this year did I feel like I could justify the expense.

Though it seems strange to admit it, joy doesn’t always come easily for me, and just as I’ve had to justify my backyard, I have to justify my joy. And when it does come, I don’t always trust it. Sometimes I hold it at arms’ length because it makes me nervous. And sometimes I’m so convinced that I’m not worthy of it, that I don’t dare let myself sink into it. And sometimes I spend more time bringing other people joy than myself because that feels like a more worthy pursuit. (It’s like trying to convince myself my backyard is more for my kids, when the truth is that I’ve been back there far more than any of them.)

Even as I’ve been enjoying my backyard, I’ve had those moments when the joy of it feels like too much goodness. “Should you really have spent so much money on this?” my gremlins ask. “Weren’t there other things that would have been more worthy uses of your money? And is it fair that your former husband still pays child support and lives in someone’s basement when you’re enjoying this beautiful space? And should you be lying here in a hammock when there’s work to do?”

There are many reasons why joy and I haven’t always been trusted companions.

For one thing, as Brené Brown says, we often short-circuit our joy as a defence against vulnerability. Joy feels risky, because it can be taken away in a moment, and when we feel it deeply it means that we open ourselves to feeling grief equally deeply. If we only open ourselves to moderate joy, then perhaps we can fool grief into thinking it can only show up in a moderate way as well.

To avoid the risk of feeling any emotion too deeply and getting knocked over by it, we numb ourselves and shut down our vulnerability. But… “We cannot selectively numb emotions. When we numb the painful emotions, we also numb the positive emotions.” (Brene Brown)

Related to that is the unworthiness piece. Surely I haven’t done enough and am not valuable enough to deserve a beautiful backyard like this, the gremlins in my head like to whisper. This is the kind of space that IMPORTANT people get to enjoy – not mediocre people like ME. The moment I discovered a crack in my basement that will require part of the patio be temporarily dismantled, for example, a little voice in my head told me that it was inevitable – I didn’t deserve such a nice patio, so it would have to be destroyed to keep me humble.

And then there are the lessons we learned about joy from the social conditioning that shaped us. I had a relatively joyful childhood, but we weren’t supposed to be TOO joyful, because that might lead to ecstasy and ecstasy was the gateway to sin. Physical joy was the most dangerous, because our bodies too easily fall into temptations and can’t be trusted. Dancing was taboo, laziness was ungodly (ie. hammocks meant for nothing but lying around), alcohol was sinful, and only wholesome sex within a committed male-female marriage was permissible. To this day, there are still echoes of this messaging reverberating in my mind whenever joy and I get too acquainted.

Recently, I answered the door to two people who’d come to share their version of the truth with me and I was reminded of these old scripts that still pop up in my subconscious now and then. When I opened the door, one asked where I turn to for my marital advice (clearly a segue meant to direct me to the Bible). “I don’t,” I said. “I’m no longer married.” “I’m so sorry,” was his response. “A lot of that goes on because of our fleshly desires.” (I brought the conversation to a fairly abrupt halt, not wanting to listen to further implications that I should feel shame for my divorce.)

I was caught off guard by his comment about “fleshly desires”, but I understand what’s at the heart of it for him. He can only see divorce as sin-related. We’re meant to be husband and wife under God, in his view of the world, and when we deviate from that, it must be because of our “sins of the flesh”.

It may be somewhat true that my “fleshly desires” contributed to my marriage ending, but not in the way that he was implying. I ended my marriage because I’d learned to be more true to myself, to seek out my own happiness and not give it up for someone else, to trust myself when I didn’t feel safe, and to erect and hold boundaries when I was being emotionally and physically violated. My “flesh” desired a safe and joyful life without the anxiety, struggle and self-sacrifice that was so present for me in my marriage. That pursuit may fit his definition of sin, but it doesn’t fit mine.

That brief conversation has been on my mind a fair bit since then, not because it triggered me (it didn’t) but because I recognize how a belief system like that (which isn’t too far from what I was raised with) is a thief of our joy. In that line of thinking, it is better for me to suffer through my marriage than to be single and dare to feel joy. Marriage is considered a higher good than personal happiness.

While I hope that belief system brings peace to the people who rang my doorbell, I reject that way of thinking for myself. I choose this joyful single life and I feel no guilt about it. Personally, I think this is closer to the message of hope, joy, and grace that Jesus brought than a life of struggle and personal sacrifice would have been (but that may be my attempt to subvert scripture to my own gain).

There’s a third piece that’s coming up for me when I think about my relationship with joy and it’s related to what I wrote in my last post about my Mennonite lineage. Pure unadulterated joy, when you’ve been raised in a lineage of pain and martyrdom, can feel like a betrayal of the memory of those who died in the fire or moved from country to country in their search for peace. How could I relax in a hammock in a beautiful backyard without worries or struggles when my foremothers gave their lives for their faith? How could I choose a Friday evening under the twinkle lights when there is still so much injustice and pain in the world? How could I be so selfish when there are widows and orphans who need to be cared for? Surely there is a cross I must bear or a cause I must fight for. Surely I should feel guilty for enjoying so much abundance that I get to spend money on patio furniture and hammocks. These thoughts, though perhaps not explicit, are definitely part of the subconscious guilt that pokes through.

As activists and writers like bell hooks and Maya Angelou have reminded us, though, joy is a radical, revolutionary act and should not be associated with guilt. It tells our oppressors that they have not won. It lets our ancestors know that their struggle was worth it. It is triumph in the face of persecution. It is our way to survive and thrive in spite of the injustice. Joy goes hand and hand with our commitment to justice and peace – one fuels the other and both can live in harmony.

My ancestors may have died in the flames and/or been displaced from their land multiple times, but I don’t believe they’d want me to deny myself joy because of some misplaced duty to their memory.

There’s a fourth reason why joy is a bit of a challenge for me and that has to do with the “tortured artist” archetype that runs fairly deeply in my psyche. As a writer who has no trouble writing about grief and trauma and other deeply personal struggles, I have an underlying fear that I might become boring when I’m too happy. I run out of things to write about and I fear that people will see me as one of those social media influencers with a charmed, curated life. Grief is easier to tap into when I’m writing – joy leans toward the more frivolous and self-absorbed.

It’s been a pattern for me that some of you may have recognized if you’ve follow me for awhile – I write more prolifically when life is not running smoothly. I have more to say about that than I do about beauty, easy, comfort and joy. And I feel more connected to my clients when I can relate to their struggle.

As a result, I tend to look for the struggle because, in a somewhat unhealthy way, that’s what gives me meaning, what builds my relationships, and what makes my creative juices flow. I am, you could say, overly attached to the struggle because of the way it grows my work.

I’m trying to change all of that though – to re-examine who I am when joy is in my life and to question the old patterns and beliefs that keep me from embracing it. Because just as I have been unafraid to know grief, I want to be unafraid to know joy.

Grief has been my teacher for many years, and now I am embracing joy as my teacher too. I wonder what lessons I can learn if I dive into it with as much commitment and intention as I have into grief. And I wonder how my relationships might shift if I seek out people who can have great capacity for both grief AND joy.

I count my riches in the number of meaningful conversations I’ve had

This morning I posted this as my Facebook status:

If we change the definition of wealth to the number of great conversations we’ve had, then my annual income is well above average.

In the last week alone, I have corresponded with interesting people in the Philippines, Turkey, western USA, Sweden, Vancouver Island, and many places in between. Almost every day, I have a heart-opening Skype call or two with people in different time zones from me. I am indeed a rich woman.

This morning I was looking through my past writing, and I came across this piece that I wrote last year as a guest post for my friend Sherri Garrity. It reminded me once again of the importance of connecting with our “joy people”. (As a side note, Sherri is one of my joy people, and we’re cooking up something interesting together that may or may not include mandalas and horses.)

Networking, or Connecting with your Joy People?

“I hate networking. It gives me hives.”

That’s what I would have told you at the beginning of this self-employment journey. It was one of the things I dreaded most about self-employment. I got so stressed out about it that it almost kept me from making the leap from my job into my business.

My friend Desiree laughed. “What do you mean you hate networking? You met me on Twitter, didn’t you? What do you think you were doing when you started chatting with me?”

“But that’s different,” I said. “That was just about making friends with someone I felt drawn to. That didn’t have any of the ickiness of networking because I wasn’t trying to get you to hire me or buy something from me.”

“It’s time for a little re-framing,” she said. (Desiree’s a straight-shooter – it’s what I like about her.) “Change your definition of networking. Instead of thinking about networking, start thinking about how you can attract your joy people.”

Joy people? I was skeptical. How would attracting joy people help me build my business? It sounded like a nice way to make friends (seeking out people who add to the joy in my life), but what did that have to do with business?

Setting Desiree’s advice aside, I went to a few of those business club meet-and-greets, where your primary goal is to get your business card into the hands of as many people as possible. They weren’t horrible (a lot of people are genuinely nice, quite frankly), but I walked away wondering what was the point of handing my business card to a bunch of plumbers, construction contractors, printers, and mortgage brokers. I was trying to build a business as a writer, retreat facilitator, and communicator – none of the people around the table were looking for the kind of services I was offering.

I kept going though, because I thought that’s the way you’re “supposed” to network when you’re starting a business.

And then one day, at one of those luncheons, when people were going around the table handing out business cards and stroking each other’s backs for bringing them business, I thought “these are not my joy people.” It’s not that they weren’t good people (and probably someone else’s joy people), they just weren’t MY joy people.

It took me awhile, but I finally took Desiree’s advice. No, let me rephrase that… I finally realized that the stuff I was doing all along, making friends with people online and in person who felt like MY people, with similar interests and passions as me, wasn’t just a sideline to building my business it WAS building my business.

It all started with an e-book. I had this bright idea that I would gather wisdom from a bunch of people I admired (my joy people) and I would compile it into an e-book. This wasn’t a money-making venture, but rather it was a way to attract people to my blog and get them to sign up for my newsletter. In the end, 21 wise and wonderful people  contributed to the e-book, and the thing I hadn’t fully anticipated was that these people would all take pride in the book themselves, and they’d tell all of THEIR joy people and suddenly the word would spread much further than I could spread it myself.

In less than two weeks, more than 500 people had signed up for my newsletter and downloaded the e-book. I suddenly had 500 people on an email list that hadn’t even existed before. That was 500 people who were interested in what I was putting out into the world – a whole lot more than I’d ever meet at business club meet and greets.

Then I had another bright idea. I’d attended ALIA (Authentic Leadership in Action) the year before (when I was employed and someone else was fitting the bill) and it was the kind of place that attracted a whole lot of my joy people. These are big-thinking, world-changing people who believe in social justice, beauty, art, music, dance, community, creativity, and leadership – all things I’m passionate about. I dreamed of going again this year, but knew I couldn’t afford it, what with giving up a steady salary and training budget and building a new business.

I put on my best creative, entrepreneurial thinking cap and came up with an idea. I emailed the executive director and suggested a trade – I would offer them my communications and social media expertise to help promote ALIA if they would cover the cost of my registration.

Not only did they like my idea, but they came up with something even better than I could have imagined. They wanted me to interview faculty members about their ideas for ALIA’s theme, “Change for Good”. In other words, I got to speak with some of the most creative thinkers in the world (these are top notch people, most of whom have several published books and have consulted all over the world) in advance of the conference!

Talk about attracting my joy people! These were the kind of joy people I’d only DREAMED of connecting with when I’d started imagining this new business. These were the kind of people who made any attempts at networking at a local business club seem pointless and a waste of my energy.

Suddenly “joy people” was starting to make sense. I was building my business and my contacts in a way that brought me great joy and connected me with people who were part of that joy.

How to create Joy

First, you need to stop.
Stop trying to make Joy your bitch.
Peel your fingers off the hem of her cloak.
She doesn’t respond well
to your frenzied attempts to master her.
“Oh, but the letting go…” you say,
“My heart is torn open
and I don’t know when this river will stop
flowing from my eyes.”
“Will she ever come back?” you cry,
desperate, lost, lonely.
I’m here to tell you that she will.
In the most unexpected ways.
But only when you extend the invitation.
and leave the rest up to her.
Joy responds well to invitation.
Grab a paintbrush and write the invitation on a big bold canvas.
Joy will meet you there in the middle of the mess.
Sink down on the floor and welcome her.
Wrap the invitation around your body.
Dance like a wild woman or run through the woods.
Joy will emerge with the sweat through your skin.
Let the invitation flow with your funeral tears.
Joy will be there in each remembered story
you share with the loved one lost.
Whisper the invitation into the wind
as you stand at the roots of an impossibly tall tree.
Joy will be the breeze that rustles the leaves.
Plant the invitation in the moist Spring earth.
Joy will grow in the compost made up of
many deaths from seasons past.
Crumple the invitation into a ball and toss it
into the circle of friends who gather to support you.
Joy will be the fire in the middle that keeps you warm.
Send the invitation off on the wings of a butterfly
joy will flutter past and remind you that her presence
can only come through the caterpillar’s surrender.
There is only one way to create joy.
Stop trying.
Extend the invitation.
And then prepare your heart for her arrival.

Note: This post was inspired by Jen Louden, Susannah Conway, and Marianne Elliot, three beautiful souls who are hosting a Creative Joy Retreat that will be luscious, fun, and inspiring. The post will be part of a free e-book that will be available soon..

What if the outcome is not your responsibility?

Recently I was asked to reflect on the greatest learning that I took away from 2011. “Patience and trust are the biggest lessons that showed up,” I said. “They’re lessons I’ve had to relearn a few times in my life.”

It takes a lot of patience to build a creative business, especially if you prefer to follow intuitive pathways and ask a lot of deep questions instead of crafting foolproof business plans. And it takes a lot of trust to believe that the path you’re following is the right one when there are lots of bumps and curves and the destination continues to looks so blurry.

Last year’s word was “joy“, but sometimes, when I’m being honest with myself, I wonder if the word that best defines it might instead be “worry“. I tried to follow joy, but in the process I did a lot of worrying. Did I do the right thing quitting my job? Is this dream really going to pan out? Do people value my work? Are any of my efforts going to pan out? Am I ever going to make enough money?

Recently, a question has popped up in my mind repeatedly when I’ve started to take the worry path.

What if the outcome is not my responsibility?

What if I am only responsible for sharing my gift and not how people respond to that gift?

What if my only duty is to follow my muse and I don’t have to worry about whether or not people like what I produce?

What if the only thing I need to do is be faithful to my calling, show up and do the work, and then trust God to look after the rest?

What if all the striving I do to be a “success” is wasted effort and I should instead invest that effort into being as faithful as I can be to the wisdom and creativity that has been given me to share?

When I take that question seriously, it gives me a great deal of peace. When I let go of the outcome or the sales or the response of other people and focus instead on being faithful to the process and my own commitment to excellency, the knots stop forming in my stomach and I can breathe more deeply.

My mandala practice is helping me learn this lesson. I make mandalas for nobody but myself (even though I’m willing to share them). For me, they are about the process. I show up on the page, pick up the pencils or markers that I feel drawn to, and let whatever needs to emerge on the page. What shows up is almost always about something I need to learn or be reminded of or discover. It’s not about the art. The outcome is not my responsibility. 

A few months ago, I was supposed to do a community-building workshop for a leadership learning institute in my city. Only three people registered for it, so they decided to cancel it. I was able to let it go at the time because I was already overbooked and needed the breathing space. They were still interested in the content, though, so they rescheduled it for January 23rd. This time, there are already 14 people registered, ten days before the event. I had to let go of the outcome and trust that, if I was faithful to what I felt called to share, and did my best to let people know, the right people would show up who need to hear what I have to say. The outcome is not my responsibility.

So far, my Creative Discovery class only has 3 registrants, even though I’ve promoted it more broadly than the last class that had much better registration. It doesn’t matter. I feel called to do this class and I know that it will be what those three people (and I) need even if nobody else shows up. The outcome is not my responsibility.

I’m putting the finishing touches on my book and writing a proposal to try to get it into the hands of agents. When I start reading books about how to write a proposal and how to land an agent, I can get my stomach tied in knots over whether I’m doing things the right way, whether I’ll ever be successful, etc., etc. But then I have to pause, take a deep breath, and make a mandala like the one above. It doesn’t matter if I’m a “success”. I feel called to share this book with the world and I will do so even if I have to self-publish it. The outcome is not my responsibility.

Letting go of the outcome doesn’t mean that we should get lazy about the product, or that we shouldn’t work hard to let people know about what we’re doing. But once we’ve worked hard to follow the muse and been diligent in offering the gift to the world, we need to let it go and trust that the people who need to find it will.

I love the principles of Open Space, an Art of Hosting methodology for hosting meaningful conversations.
* Whoever comes are the right people
* Whatever happens is the only thing that could have happened.
* When it starts is the right time
* When it’s over it’s over

In other words, the outcome is NOT MY RESPONSIBILITY!

And now it’s your turn… what do you need to let go of?

Joy Journal #9

1. The lacy pattern the sun is painting on the wall right now, aided by the tree outside my window.

2. The eclectic, chaotic Christmas tree decorated by my daughters with the ornaments they have hand-picked each year from the local fair trade store.

3. The miles of prairie roads that held hours of conversation between my friend Randy and I as we drove out of the city to explore.

4. Having a friend like Randy whose eyes light up over many of the same things that make my eyes light up – a good bookstore, books that deepen our spirituality and mindfulness, any opportunity to wander to a place we haven’t seen before, a glass of wine in the evening, deep conversation, art, etc.

5. A husband who loves to cook delicious food when friend visit.

6. More opportunities to teach than I expected would come my way when I started this journey a year ago.

7. The way creativity is showing up in unique ways in each of my children.

8. A day of Christmas baking with my mom, sister, niece, nephew, and daughters. And all of the tasty eating I’ve done since.

9. New ideas that keep popping up and inspiring me.

10. Partnerships with talented and wholehearted people that will result in some wonderful offerings in 2012.

These things I know about myself

*  I would rather teach people to think beautiful thoughts than to create grammatically correct sentences.
*  I believe that beauty and justice are inextricably intertwined and I want to bring more of both into the world.
*  I believe that the greatest inventions, discoveries, and solutions emerge when people start asking the right questions.
*  I believe that you have to ask a lot of questions in order to get to the right ones.
*  I am happy when I can help bold creativity blossom in those around me.
*  A little part of me shrivels up inside when I find myself stifling creativity with too many rules and judgements.
*  I am easily distracted by colourful markers and clean white paper.
*  I believe that personal leadership is more important than positional leadership.
*  I choose community over team, circle over hierarchy, and family over corporation.
*  I believe that shared stories open doorways to transformation.
*  I am less productive when I haven’t had time for deep contemplation and equally deep play. The two go hand in hand.
*  I believe that our differences are important but that they should not divide us.
*  I delight in making new connections with people whose ways of looking at the world intrigue me. I am open to letting them change me, if it’s for the best.
*  I am committed to hosting and being part of more conversations and inquiries that follow spiral patterns (moving inward to deeper wisdom) rather than linear pathways.
*  Deep and soulful listening is often the best gift I can give anyone, and so I strive to keep my mouth shut and my ears open more often.
*  I believe in walking lightly on this earth, and hope to some day use fewer resources for my own personal gain.
*  I want to be open-minded and open-hearted and to live with delight as my constant companion.
*  I believe that vulnerability and truth-telling can serve as catalysts for deep relationships and profound change.
*  I believe that in order to create one great work of art you have to be prepared to create at least 100 mediocre ones first.
*  I believe that time spent in meditation, prayer, and body movement is never time wasted, and I hope to some day live like I believe it.
*  I believe that God created each of us to do good work and that we cheat our Creator and our world when we let our self-doubt and fear keep us from doing it.
*  I want to bring more colour and light into otherwise dreary spaces.
*  I strive to be more courageous tomorrow than I was today.
*  I believe in daily transformation, continuous learning, and growth that doesn’t end until the day I exhale my last breath.
*  I am committed to doing my best work, which is at the intersection of creativity, leadership, community, and story-telling.

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