Thursday, June 7, 2012

Communicable Joy

I recently drove to the Y's scenic Camp Thompson on a Sunday afternoon. I was going there to talk with the Camp Koala folks about the Mentoring Project. Camp Koala facilitates a 3-day resident camp experience for children ages 7-12 grieving the loss of a parent or primary caregiver. While I was supportive of their work, I wasn't looking forward to the presentation. I envisioned such a camp to be heavy, thick with grief, and depressed. What I found was completely different, joyful in fact.

In a recent blog post, Margaret Feinberg writes, "... Harvard and MIT researchers documented that the spread of happiness (or sadness) is absolutely contagious, with spreading patterns very similar to communicable diseases like the flu." Many studies have already shown the positive holistic health effects of a positive attitude and joyful living. Feinberg identifies such examples from a BBC article that cites a group of psychologists who found that, "positive thinkers live 7.5 years longer than their more pessimistic counterparts. Have a positive attitude toward aging proved to have even greater effect than physiological measures like blood pressure and cholesterol. And a [another study] concluded that laughter helps blood vessels stay healthier."

I have a friend that directs a local food bank. A few weeks ago I saw her sitting in the lobby of the Y, while two others played the guitar and sang. My friend said that she was on her way into the Y for her workout, but "heard this beautiful music and decided to stop and sit for a bit and enjoy it." I believe in life lived slow, but as the practical realities of my day mount, I'm too easily lured by the temptress of the to-do list, often at the cost of stopping to enjoy the music for a bit. I saw a bumper sticker the other day that read, "Don't postpone joy." My food bank friend reminded me of this, her contagious appreciation of the moment.

I write often about this slower, joy-focused living, however it isn't my nature. I'm a skeptic.  Most of my career, I've been in positions of risk management. I identify the negative, the what-ifs, and the worst case scenarios before they happen. My inclination is not to, as John Calvin said, "[see] sparks of His glory, as it were, glittering in every created thing." The negativity and discontent that's created from such a worldview can be suffocating. In turn, my writing on intentional living is, in a sense, a sermon to myself. A call to hold life loosely, breathe deeply, live fully, and look with wonder at the world around. I need daily reminders to do this. Eighteen months ago, my wife accepted author Ann Voskamp's dare to name, number, and journal 1,000 gifts of grace. I thought it was a quaint task for my sweet wife, but too Pollyanna for me.  Her grace journaling was contagious.  Today, I listed #920, "sitting on the deck after work and playing Zingo with my kids."

Camp Koala packed the Masland Dining Hall with campers, their families, counselors, therapists, and "big buddies." They smiled, they laughed, and they talked. They all seemed a bit giddy to me for those walking through a very difficult season of suffering. As part of their closing ceremonies, the campers and staff performed a song that they had written during their time at camp. The chorus, repeated often, said "as we celebrate our time together." These campers weren't hovering under a dark cloud of depression, they were bursting skyward in celebration of their memories of time with loved ones. This was evident in their smiling faces as they walked outside and released balloons attached with a note to their loved one lost. They looked up, breathed, released the balloons, and exhaled a contagious joy that I was blessed to be exposed.