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The most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched, they must be felt with the heart. - Helen Keller
Last June we went to see a little animated flick called “Inside Out,” and it completely caught me off guard. My own insides at the time were a jumbled mess and I was taken aback by how a fun matinee with the kids could grab so tightly onto my heart and so beautifully and simply illustrate the convoluted chaos of human emotion.
Joy. Sadness. Fear. Anger. Disgust. Joy is the leader and you can see it from the start. You root for her. She wants the best for her little person, and you think she IS the best for her little person. She brings with her smiles, laughter and a sea of warm memories. She seems the most logical, the most sane, the most well-intentioned. She plays nice and works well with others. She tempers the other emotions, keeps them in check and helps them from garnering too much of the upper hand.
I root for her. I’ve rooted for joy my whole life. Because joy is the product of so much that is good and noble. Thankfulness. Humility. Faith. Perseverance. Reverence. Love. So many times – SO MANY times – joy doesn’t win. Joy is overtaken by heartache, jealousy, bitterness, loneliness, desperation.
But the thing about joy – the joy that is inside me and inside so many others – she fights. Joy is a fighter. She might play well with others and wear a smile, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t fierce. She is strong. Relentless. She may be forced to drag sadness along with her for miles and miles, but she keeps moving, keeps believing and she perseveres. I respect Joy for that. For her tenacity to pursue how things should be despite how they are. For her ability to find thankfulness, humility, faith, perseverance, reverence and love in places where they are not obviously found.
I love Joy.
There is a scene in the movie where the main character, Riley’s, childhood imaginary friend, Bing Bong, loses something precious to him. Joy, Sadness and Bing Bong are on a mission with little time to spare, and this loss sets Bing Bong back. He sits down and laments. Well-intentioned Joy does what she does, encouraging him to buck up, keep moving and essentially look on the bright side – none of which provides any solace to Bing Bong. In his moment of disappointment, Sadness sits beside him, acknowledges his pain and listens. Bing Bong has a good cry, pours out his heart a little and then feels better- ready to join Joy and Sadness again on their journey together.
Of course that little scene becomes the larger theme in the movie, that these other emotions are needed. They are necessary. There is beauty in sadness, meaning in suffering, reasons for fear and righteousness in anger. Allowing these emotions to seep in and be felt – sometimes THAT produces the best joy possible.
I think of when my kids get hurt or disappointed, I’m so quick to say “you’re okay!” or “you’ll be fine!” – anything to catch them or distract them before they realize it hurts and start reacting. My intentions are good. I don’t want them to be sad and I don’t want to “deal” with them crying or pouting if I have the power to stop it first.
The other day I found myself taking a different approach. Caleb was getting dressed for school and he didn’t want to wear jeans. He wanted to wear shorts. We were running late, it was raining and cold outside, we still had to get Kenzie and ourselves dressed and ready, and we had little time to deal with whining. I was about to spew my usual responses “Come on buddy, you’ll be fine.” “Caleb, these are just pants – it’s no big deal. Lots of people wear pants when it’s cold outside!” Or, my personal favorite, "Think about the kids who don't even HAVE pants!"
But instead, I looked at my five year old boy pouting on the couch, with the jeans in his hands. 7 a.m. on a Monday morning. First morning after a fun weekend. Waking up, as most of us do, in not the best of moods. A boy who really, I mean REALLY hates jeans.
And I sat down. Right beside him. I put my arm around him and he pulled in for a giant hug. He sobbed into my shoulder and I just squeezed him, held him, stroked his back, kissed his forehead. I said “I’m sorry buddy.” And I was sorry. I was sorry he hated jeans, but had to wear them. Sorry it was dark and cold on a Monday morning and that he had a long day ahead. Sorry that things weren’t quite going his way, and that they wouldn’t – at least not as far as his pants went. Sorry. Sorry that he was sad.
Much to my surprise, when he was done crying and I loosened my grip, he got dressed. Without complaint. Not one word about how he didn’t want to wear jeans. Not one more tear shed. And by the time he walked out of the door with Luke that morning he was smiling, joking around and giving hugs. I couldn’t help but feel grateful we didn’t try to push sadness under the rug or distract or punish it away. If sadness hadn’t won for a little bit that morning, I may never have gotten to see joy walk out that door.
I do love Joy. But I know she has her place. Sometimes when my insides feel raw and vulnerable, Fear can feel like a friend, Anger like an outlet, Disgust like an advocate and Sadness like a salve to my soul. They fill unique, empty spaces – spaces where Joy does not quite belong. At least for that moment in time. And I know that even as Joy takes a backseat in those moments, she is somewhere inside, lacing up her gloves, bracing herself, waiting to get back in the ring and fight.
So I am inspired. Inspired to teach my kids to feel without shame or reservation and to please, PLEASE allow us to be their soft places to land. I’m inspired to give myself that same freedom to sit with sadness and dance with joy, knowing that rejoicing and weeping are both divinely-given gifts that have deep personal and relational value. I want to embrace brokenness rather than flee from it, trusting in the resilient nature of Joy - but even more so - in the benevolent Giver of Joy, who assures us that His blindingly bright light is not diminished even for a second when it is time to weep.