I grew up hearing a story from my mother about a little girl who is lost in sadness. She wanders the streets looking for someone or something to cheer her up when a bird flies down and whispers to her a secret: “Smile, and the world will smile back.” Puzzled by this suggestion, she tries to do as he says. She walks down the street with a smile on her face, small at first, but as the rest of the world starts to smile back at her, her smile grows. She feels joy deep within her soul. My mother told me this story when I was young, instilling in me an understanding about joy. I believe that joy is a choice.
I learned the value of this choice in the spring of 2008 when I went to France and Italy with my mother and a group of students from my school in order to help local churches there. For ten days we all surrendered our dreams, our aspirations, our desires so that we might better serve those who were in need. I had romantic ideas of wandering through the local markets, getting lost in the streets of Paris, people watching with a cappuccino, picnicking in the hills of Gordon, and sitting in the pews of Sacre Coeur while staring in awe at the magnificent structures and paintings. However, we were set handing out fliers for a local church; we interviewed locals in Grasse about their thoughts on America and religion rather than walking through the perfume factory. Hours upon hours were spent crammed into the tiny European cars with our luggage crammed around us. Some of our group became sick, causing restless nights when we were awakened to coughing and wheezing. I was aware the trip was not a tour; nevertheless, being in these medieval cities, it was easy to forget that the main purpose of the trip was to serve. Minute, unpleasant events occurred causing tension in my heart, though, I would not have changed the flow of the trip for anything. I was reminded by my mother that I had only to choose joy and the bitter feelings in my heart would disappear. In every situation I focused on what was good rather than the negatives. I found that in doing so there was no sadness over having my expectations or desires unfulfilled.
I discovered that I tend to lose my joy when I allow selfish ambitions to rule my heart; when I get wrapped up in what I want, I forget that life is filled with simple joys. I forget the beauty of a smile, how it affects the heart, how it shines. I forget the beauty in the way a comforting smell can awaken joy. I forget the beauty of laughter and how it causes the whole body, down to the toes, to feel joy. However, when I remember how small I am compared to the vastness of Earth, I become more aware to how insignificant my wants are, and I am better able to focus on others. This shifting of focus from myself to others is how I find joy.
Life is joyous. Joy is reachable. It is a matter of opening your eyes to finding the joy in life. It does not always come to you, like the little girl thought; it may take an action on your part. A smile, perhaps, as the bird suggested.