I have really been struggling to write this post. This has been a very hard month, one during which it has been a great challenge to find and live with joy. For me, joy is a much different idea than happiness. There definitely has not been a lot of happiness in my life these last several weeks. As a pediatric ICU nurse, working in a burgeoning program during a pandemic, I have been functioning at a high stress level. The acuity of the patients on our unit is skyrocketing, as the defects present in these children are more and more complex. Our program is slowly becoming a satellite program, which means that, due to the surgical expertise and the good outcomes this hospital has accumulated in the short three years it has been in existence, it is becoming known as a regional center, drawing children and families from across the country. But with great outcomes and very sick patients comes even more responsibility.
The pandemic has also caused a lot of health care workers to evaluate and potentially leave the profession altogether. Our hospital has been hit, as have thousands across the country, as nurses and other allied folks have decided they cannot continue with the environment the way it is, and short-term lucrative travel opportunities present themselves as a potential change in perspective. And now, the latest surge with our new adversary Omicron is spreading throughout the staff quickly, which means more absences on a regular basis.
In mid-December, the timekeeping system which is also used for our payroll was attacked in a ransomware hack. This meant that our pay was not accurate for the month containing Christmas and New Year’s Day. My plans were radically altered as any chance for planned travel was interrupted. I had to put off purchasing and sending gifts during a season that I love to celebrate with personal reminders and poignant gifts.
We have been asked to work extra shifts to cover the many days that our colleagues are missing, and it is a huge dilemma for me – the lives of young people, and the well-being of their families, are dependent on a well-staffed unit and the experience of many years at the bedside. I am also a limited resource, with needs of my own. It is a daily challenge, deciding between a day of rest (recovery) and standing at the bedside for an extra shift. I am spent.
How do I remember to be joyful during a season like this? How is joy different than happiness? Where can I encounter the depth of joy, even when I cannot feel it?
For me, joy has always represented something much different, a deeper undercurrent, than happiness. Happiness is a transient feeling. “I want you to be happy!” or “You have made me so happy!” are lovely sentiments to hear, but they are short-lived. Happiness one moment can turn to sadness or anger the next. Happiness for me is situational. Its definition, according to dictonary.com, is “delighted, pleased or glad, as over a particular thing.” Happiness is an encounter or an emotion that hinges on one thing at a time: happy to see a friend, happy with a promotion at work or at the laughter of a child. But to me, it does not feel like a permanent, present thing.
Joy can be felt and experienced regardless of whether happiness is present. It is a compulsion toward hope, and a belief that there is good even in the midst of darkness. As I wrote in my last post, the children in Haiti are joyful. They live in circumstances we cannot imagine, and the joy radiates from their faces. They are able to see goodness and life in everything.
A couple from my church is a perfect example of why I believe the way I do. Nearly 20 years ago, their son was killed in a hit-and-run accident. The immediate response they offered to the person responsible was forgiveness. The grief and pain they shared with a massive crowd of visitors and attendees at their son’s funeral was transparent. At the time of the death, I was the director of a small medical missionary organization with which the father, a physician, had just traveled on a mission trip. The overwhelming financial support the family received after their son’s death was directed toward my organization! Those funds allowed us to establish and run a permanent clinic facility in their son’s name. It still exists today.
This couple radiates joy. They spoke so frankly and openly about the faith and hope required to continue to exist in the midst of their grief, it was an incredibly powerful witness. They attended Mass daily, expressing and welcoming and greeting and truly listening to others.
Tragically, ten years after his brother died, their other son took his own life. I knew this man, worked with him as he traveled with us to the permanent clinic in Central America, and observed his valiant fight with darkness. His parents loved him and prayed for him daily, and when met with the horror of losing another son, embraced the grief just as before. They celebrated his life, held fast to the belief that this is not the end, and they continue to walk faithfully with each other, being honest about their weakness as well as shining forth the strength that comes from a life rooted in Christ. One of them is boisterous, wears a huge smile, and laughs out loud despite the debilitating physical pain of severe back injury. The other is reserved, quiet, warm, and meditative. They love deeply and live deeply. They give generously and remember the events in the lives of others.
I look at this couple, the children and beautiful women I worked with in Haiti, my young patients who have undergone open-heart surgery and still express excitement and willingness to live life to its fullest, and I think that joy is somehow a more eternal perspective than happiness. Joy believes, joy hopes, joy honors, joy rests in the heart and promotes the eternity we yearn for. Joy reminds us that living in the moment is okay, but living for the moment is more important.