Finding joy

I often look back on my childhood and wonder exactly when and how I lost the sense of possibilities, the freedom, the joy and excitement and wonder of that time of life. Maybe if I could understand when and how it changed, that might help me figure out how to regain it, or so goes my thought process.

This is not a rose-tinted retrospective view, though. My childhood was far from perfect. But I do remember having a much more positive and hopeful outlook on life than I tend to have today. Some aspects that I remember well that gave me joy:

I remember the summertimes, when we had the freedom to go anywhere and explore outdoors without any concern for safety. I grew up in a small farming town at a time in which we had a lot of freedom to roam unsupervised, freedom that is pretty much unthinkable today and which my own children have never known. I often spent time roaming the woods and fields that followed the river that flowed through our town, exploring, fishing, imagining all kinds of things. It sounds idyllic and in some ways, it was. My brother and I would often plan things like building a raft to float down the river (failed), or building a tree house (also failed, with the result that I fell out of a tall tree and hurt myself fairly badly). One of my older brothers became interested in entomology, especially butterflies, and began to collect them. We followed his lead and I remember going through fields around our area with butterfly nets, catching many different kinds of butterflies and other insects, and learning how to mount them on boards.

The winters were also quite memorable. From a very early age, when we still lived in Nebraska, I remember ice skating. My older siblings enjoyed ice skating on a nearby lake, and I distinctly recall playing around with the skates when they trooped home after a game of hockey. When we moved to east central Illinois, there was a nearby pond that we used as a skating rink. I was older then, and learned how to skate myself. My feet got so cold, but it was great fun. Then there was so much snow. Kids today have little concept of how cold and snowy winters can be. There was so much snow at times that we were out of school for days on end, and the snow was so deep that we were able to dig snow tunnels throughout our backyard. The roads that remained open had snow piled so high on either side that we joked about it looking like the parting of the Red Sea. Nothing like it has been experienced since then. I learned to cross country ski and saved up enough money to buy my own equipment. These days, it isn’t worthwhile because there isn’t enough snow to justify it.

Another prominent aspect of growing up was the variety of pets we had. We had many freshwater aquariums filled with fish. We raised a crow and also had a grackle for a while. We had dogs and gerbils. I often dreamed of raising a raccoon and/or a hawk and avidly read books from the library about how to build cages and how to learn falconry. We regularly haunted pet stores, a favorite thing to do. Hobby stores were also very interesting as my brother and I loved to build various models of ships or planes, as well as launch rockets.

Of course, many of these activities required money, and generally speaking, we had it because we worked for it. We delivered newspapers in our small town from an early age. Later on, when I was in high school, I worked part time in a paint store. Older siblings also earned money detasseling corn in the summer. Sometimes we also earned a bit of money by doing chores for my grandparents, who lived next door for part of our childhood. It was a big deal when I opened my first bank account in the local savings and loan, and I remember the little paper booklet I was given to record deposits and withdrawals. As I reflect on these things, I think of how foreign all of this is to my own children.

But in the end, where do these reflections lead in terms of finding joy again? As I grew older, I became more aware of all kinds of negative things in the world at large, in my own family, in myself, and in the church fellowship in which I was raised. I became weighed down with responsibility and cares. When we are children, we tend to think that we can’t wait to be “adults” because then we’ll have all kinds of freedom: freedom to drive, to earn a lot of money, to eat and drink whatever we want, to travel to distant places, to not have to go to school all the time, etc. How ironic it is, then, to think back to childhood and realize how much freedom and joy there was to be had back then. Yes, we adults get to do a lot of things that children can’t do, but along with that privilege comes a huge weight of responsibilities and cares that tends to steal any joy.

I think my best opportunity to finding deep, real, and lasting joy lies in my Christian faith, and I’m reminded of Romans 15:13, where it says: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” (NIV) If there is one thing I hope for in this new year, it is to experience more joy, in spite of everything, in spite of circumstances that are challenging. I hope you find joy, too.

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