When Feeling Joy Requires Courage

When life is filled with pain, betrayal, and heartache, it takes great courage to allow joy. When anger and fear are the feelings primarily modeled for us, they become the essential building blocks of our emotional DNA. We understand pain and shame. They are expected. We know how to behave and what to anticipate when unenjoyable feelings are on the scene.

The first time I became aware that joy was difficult to accept, I was about to leave on vacation. At the time, I was working for a brilliant, kind man who had taken me under his wing and believed in me before I believed in myself.

Scheduled to leave for a short vacation up in a beautiful Colorado mountain town, I was looking forward to extricating myself from the word world for a week. All details and tasks had been handed off to the appropriate people. I checked in with my boss to determine if there were any last-minute fires before I took off.

As I stood there chatting, he turned, looked at me with his kind, grey eyes, and handed me $500 cash. With a genuine smile, he told me to do whatever I wanted with it, but he hoped it made my vacation a bit more relaxing.

Standing there with cash in hand, I froze. I felt a deep internal shaking and paralyzed at the same time. A part of me, a very small, long-hidden part wanted to allow joy. But, a much more seasoned part was terrified and angry.

I’d come to know gifts as a weapon.

A way to be manipulated and controlled. A form of unhealthy power. If I’d been given a gift, it had strings attached, and those strings would later be used to manage me. Gifts said, “see it this way” or “I know what you need more than you know what you need”. Gifts said, “do it my way” and “you make bad decisions”.

Perhaps that wasn’t always the case, but it happened enough that all gifts came with a sense of my need to figure out the unspoken message attached. The unspoken expectations of receiving a gift left me feeling like joy was surrounded by landmines.

So many times, the underlying message of a gift was shaming and controlling rather than loving. I stopped trying to determine the difference. Resigning myself that gifts are dangerous, I stopped finding joy in generosity. I walled off and protected myself from the potential manipulation. In the process, joy was also walled off.

Before I could speak, and perhaps to ease what he saw happening in my eyes, he said, “Tara, honestly, it’s just a little something for you. No strings attached. Buy a $500 pair of shoes if that’s what you want. It’s a gift. Just a gift. It’s ok to enjoy it”.

I learned two things that day.

  • The steady influence of a kind, benevolent, perceptive leader can change the course of a heart and life.
  • It takes much more courage to receive than give.

My heart believed joy was a trick. Something to be dangled just out of reach. Something beautiful to stumble upon only to find quicksand under foot. Joy was pain waiting to happen.

That $500 was priceless in my emotional healing. I kept watching for the conditions on the gift. There were none, and over time, I learned to trust his and others’ motives. But more importantly, I began to trust my own intuition around generosity. The potential manipulation of big-heartedness no longer scares me…..and joy can breathe, it’s no longer encased in fear.

Joy requires courage. Step into it.

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