Sometimes it’s the little things in life that make it fun. Watching a new TV drama on a week night. Taking a walk in the park on a crisp fall morning. Even getting frozen yogurt on a Sunday evening. All of the above are fun to me. When my husband, Chris, and I go get yogurt, what always starts out as a “healthy” dessert idea in my mind, somehow, after the chocolate sauce, nuts and ten dollars worth of candy, becomes something I need to run off the next day. But that’s ok, because we just love the experience. Partly because we like to people watch while we eat. It’s amusing to covertly peer into the lives of other people and see how they interact with one another. And of course, we do this in a completely non-creepy way (Wink). One afternoon, we encountered a mother with her captivating crew of children. The three moppets burst into the shop overcome with excitement for the indulgence that waited for them inside. They scurried around aimlessly at first, merely entertained by the opportunity to pull down the levers and watch the flow of dairy treats pour out. Then after flavor choices had been made, we giggled as gummy worms and sprinkles were flung violently onto the floor, with only a few making it into the bowls for which they were intended. Once the ensemble sat down, they chatted with delight at the deliciousness of it all. And when everyone’s bowls were empty and stomachs full, the mom did her very best to clean up the area and the sticky faces of each satisfied child. I watched her take a long, deep breath as she headed to the door, not of unhappiness or disapproval, just one of “Ok, that’s done now. What’s next?” I understood that even taking three children to get yogurt can be a little trying on a mom, but boy how her kids had enjoyed it.
An old man was sitting outside the yogurt shop and had been staring at these children through the window. Wearing a gentle smile, he shuffled over to hold the door for the family’s exit, and kindly spoke to each one of them as they left. He watched them head down the sidewalk for some time. Nodding toward him, Chris looked at me and said, “I bet that guy could teach us all a few things about what matters in life.” Observing the old man as I had, I couldn’t have agreed more. He just looked like a man of wisdom. There was a peace about him, an understanding. As he gazed at the mom and her kids walking to their car, I could sense that he had possibly been where she was at some point in his life. He knew that the excitement and messiness and scurrying about was part of it, but he also knew that there would be a day when the kids would grow up and not be around to have yogurt with her. His gaze wasn’t filled with sadness, just maybe reflection and reminiscence.
Chris’s observation was a good one. What if I asked that man to sit down with me and tell me what matters in life? What would he say? What if I told him the worries I have or the regrets I carry around? Would he give me good advice about how to handle them? If I explained my dreams for the future, would he encourage me to follow them or suggest a different path? I sort of imagined an interaction with this man and thought about what he would tell me, based on his life experience, was the secret to living my best life.
Chris and I continued to discuss this idea as we drove home. One of the many things I love about my husband is that he’s easygoing and rarely ever complains. He wouldn’t dream of holding a grudge, has no interest in gossip, and is always up for a laugh, especially if it’s at himself. The only thing negative about being married to someone like this is the full and complete awareness that I am nothing like him. But, I want to learn to be more like Chris. And I want to know what that old man may teach me from his long life. And something just tells me that they both would encourage me to do one very simple thing…lighten up. Lighten up, Yancey, as you worry about your kids’ experiences in school. Lighten up as you try to erase those ever forming wrinkles and diet off the extra pounds you tally. Lighten up when you see someone behaving in a way you don’t agree with. Lighten up as you struggle to complete the endless tasks in your work and home life. Can anyone relate? Could the answer to the question of how to live our best lives be summed up with these two simple words? And is this really a secret or could its obviousness be right there in front of us every day? What if we all just decided to lighten up?
I was reading Galatians 4 recently and came across a passage where Paul is writing to the people out of concern for them. He asks them a poignant question in verse 15: “What has happened to all your joy?” The Galatians had previously been overwhelmed and joyful about the salvation they had received from accepting Jesus Christ. But legalism had since taken over and Paul recognized that they no longer felt the same freedom and contentment as before. They had begun to judge themselves based on performance, beat themselves up when they fell short, and criticize one another’s shortcomings. Paul knew that this mindset was not what his Savior had died for.
Are we like the Galatians? Have we lost our joy? Could we be losing sight of what our Savior died to give us? Ask yourself a few questions: When you look in the mirror, do you focus on what you don’t like about yourself or your positive attributes? When you look at your life, do you dwell on what has yet to come or what pleases you about it now? When you think about your future, do you picture its potential positive outcomes or the negative ones? Are you making choices daily that will better your life or keep you stagnant or falling behind?
I think the answers to these questions could be quite revealing. Could we be creating a darkness around us and not even realize it? Could we possibly be weighing ourselves down with the dialogue in our minds? Are our hearts being enslaved by worldly desires, negative attitudes and fear-driven thoughts? Maybe it’s time to lighten up! Paul continues his encouragement toward the Galatians in Chapter 5 when he writes, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by the yoke of slavery.” (vs 1)
I read once that joy is the certainty of the love we have from God. Do you have this certainty? Happiness, not joy, is based on our day to day experiences, whether positive or negative. Happiness is fleeting. It comes and goes based on our circumstances. If we feel that we are doing well in our careers; if we think that we look good; if we believe that our family life is running smoothly; if we have security in our finances, we are happy. But what happens when we lose an account at work, when we age or gain weight, have trouble in relationships, or fall into temptation and sin? We can lose that happiness. Why? Because happiness is related to what is going on outside of us. Think about it- a happy morning can quickly be derailed based on the traffic, a headache, or even the weather. But joy, on the other hand, is what we possess inside. As Christians, it’s presence is deep, strong and securely rooted inside our soul because Jesus, our Chief Cornerstone, resides there. Joy is the constant knowing of who we are as a child of God. The knowing that we are special, adored, competent and forgiven. And since it is not based on the moment, no job issue, physical ailment, relationship problem or even sin can take this confidence from us. And it is this confidence, this joy, that gives us the ability, the freedom, to lighten up.
Let’s put this into practice!
Here are four guidelines from my experience that have helped me. It is my belief that God weaves through all of them and that if we simply choose to embrace these freedoms, we can together, lighten up.
#1- Give yourself a break.
Do you beat yourself up constantly? For what? Because you packed on a few extra pounds, you were snippy with your spouse, you’re not sure you are being the best parent? Maybe you’re frustrated that your career hasn’t taken off. That last relationship ended badly and for some reason you think it is your fault. You want to stop procrastinating. You wish you were more organized, were a better cook, and didn’t splurge so much at the mall. Maybe there are some more serious things, as well. And maybe we could be doing some of these things better. But just like a child, if we are constantly scolded, will we really change? Why not show ourselves some grace? Give ourselves a break. God does. And He does this because He knows our potential. Read this carefully – God didn’t make a mistake when He made you. In fact, there is no one else like you in this world. You are special, talented and valuable to Him. So, celebrate all the good that you are. Focus on your beauty and all that you do well. Imagine how you will shine when you choose to focus on your strengths and gifts. Carrying around this confidence of who you are because of the love you have from God will make all the difference. And you might just find that you walk a little lighter and love yourself a lot more.
#2- Give other people a break.
I am certainly guilty of believing that I can tell people how to live their lives better than they can. Hmm, and I guess I’m doing that right now, aren’t I? Well, anyway…think about this, how many times have you scrolled through Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or just watched the news and gotten so frustrated with people and the world? Why do we get so upset with others and how they choose to live their lives? Until we have walked a mile in their shoes, lived their life experience, how can we presume to do anything other than show kindness and compassion? Yes, there may be times when those feelings are justified, but why are we letting those events impact our contentment and peace? If we truly want to lighten up, we need to stop judging and trying to change other people’s choices and first focus on our own. We may think we would handle a situation differently than someone else, but we cannot be sure. Answer me this – do you reflect light to those you meet? Or are we so poisoned with anger, hatred, and unforgiveness that we cast a dark shadow over our day? Will we look back on our lives and wish we had held on to bitterness toward those who have harmed us? Will we approve of the moments we chose to condemn or regret them? Will our life experience remind us how we missed opportunities to forgive, encourage and inspire? Rather, why don’t we just give other people a break and love them where they are as Jesus would do. Perhaps our love and light might be exactly what they needed.
#3- Be ok with uncertainty.
You know that situation when you’re driving down the familiar street, late to the office or carpool line, and you see roadwork up ahead. Cars backed up. Only one lane open. Two guys standing 50 yards apart with signs that read Stop or Slow. You, of course, get the guy with the Stop sign. And you wait, and wait. Cars slowly moving in the opposite direction. Your stress growing with every second that seems like an eternity. What if I don’t get to work on time? What if my child is tardy again? It is in these situations that I have learned so much from my husband. While I feel like I want to pull the hair out of my head with impatience and pressure, I will look over at Chris and he is calm, tapping his fingers to the music, and smiling. How in the world is he able to stay so light in a situation so unexpected and exasperating? After many years of marriage, I have figured it out. Chris is ok with uncertainty. Chris doesn’t connect his enjoyment in a situation to being able to predict the outcome. The unknown future does not rattle him. “Everything will work out,” he says to me often. And you know what? He is usually right. Are we so concerned with the what ifs of the future that we let it rob us of enjoyment today? Are we so anxious about what bad thing might happen that we lose sight of the option of good things being a possibility, too? Am I so in need of control that I cannot handle it when I am not the one with it? Whatever we may experience in life, our Heavenly Father promises to be with us. If the worst does, in fact, happen, He will carry us through it. Worrying about the future and needing to control every circumstance steals the joy from our days. When we decide to relax, let go of the moment, and trust God, we will learn to lighten up.
#4- Embrace gratitude
I will be happy when I can buy a new car… I will be happy when my son appreciates me… I will be happy when I go on vacation… I will be happy when I get married… I will be happy when I get divorced…when, when, when… Do these sound familiar? I bet we could all make this list a lot longer. If we only focus on what we don’t presently have, we are living in a consistent state of emptiness and dissatisfaction. To lighten up, it has been my experience that embracing a spirit of gratitude, of appreciation for all that I do have, all that I have been blessed with in this moment, however large or insignificant makes all the difference. And if you are grateful for nothing else, try this line of thinking…I feel light because I woke up today…I feel light because there is no one else like me in this world…I feel light because I am adored by my Heavenly Father…I feel light because my Savior died for me…these are the foundation for the confidence we have in the love of God.
So, at the end of your life, what will you wish you had done? Who will you wish you had been? When you are standing in the proverbial yogurt shop watching a young family walk away, what will you be thinking? This day will come, my friends, sooner than you think. And you won’t be able to go back and live your life over again. Even yesterday is gone, so what will your tomorrow bring? You can spend your days focused on the shortcomings of yourself and others…you can try to control every situation and stress out when things are uncertain…you can long for what you do not yet have… OR you can choose to lighten up, live each moment in gratitude for what it brings, trust your future to the One who made you, and love yourself and others as beautiful children of God. The decision can make all the difference for a life well-lived. What will you choose? I pray that at the next stop sign you encounter, that you and I both will remain calm, tap our fingers to the music, and smile.
You, O Lord, keep my lamp burning: my God turns my darkness into light. Psalm 18:28