About this time a year ago, I was profoundly unhappy. I was doing literally everything the media, the world, and other people told me I should be doing to be happy. But I wasn’t. I was unhappy, and I couldn’t stop being unhappy no matter how hard I tried.
Joy and happiness are similar but inherently different. Happy is a feeling. It’s temporary, fleeting, spontaneous, and slightly ignorant. People will delude themselves for happiness, but joyful people are perfectly aware of the world around them. Joy is an attitude that accepts all, embraces all, and elects to act in a loving manner. Happiness fades. Joy lasts. I knew happiness was temporary, so I truly sought joy. Yet, I didn’t have it.
As unhappy as I was, I was even more stubborn. I had done everything “right,” so I had to be happy, I had to be joyful. I had to be or… I didn’t even know, but I knew I should be happy/joyful because I had done everything conceivable “right.”
I rationalized my unhappiness away most of the time, reminding myself of all the good, happy things I had. I graduated from a great college. I was surrounded by great family, friends, and co-workers. I had a great job that I liked most of the time. I had an awesome apartment and was about to have one of my best friends live with me. I had little responsibility outside of work and could use my paid time off to travel. I was dating around. I was working out semi-regularly and taking care of myself. I was actually saving money and was able to put away money for retirement. I wasn’t even spiritually neglecting myself! I was going to Mass and mediating regularly.
I was doing everything “right.” But I was profoundly unhappy.
Working night shift, I had a lot of alone time. The buzz of the world fades away late at night. To trick my body into a different sleep schedule, I’d watch TV, browse the internet, read, and otherwise equal parts distract myself and try to stay awake. But once I turned off the TV, shut my computer, and put down my book, I was left with silence. Profound silence. And it was frightening because I couldn’t rationalize my unhappiness away in the silence of my heart.
As many good things as I had, I was unhappy. And I was ashamed of being unhappy. Not only did unhappiness hurt my pride but it also made me feel guilty for having so much and yet wanting more, even though I knew people probably would love to have my circumstances over their own.
Yet, in the silence of my heart, I was unhappy. All I truly wanted to do was travel nurse, as much as I rationalized other more logical choices. Travel nursing didn’t make sense in my career plan. Apparently it made sense in the Lord’s plan.
As crazy as it sounds, I asked the Lord what He wanted of me, and the Lord asked me to travel. I was flabbergasted at the invitation. I thought God wanted me to be miserable to prove my love for Him, so Him and I actually agreeing on something seemed quite out of place.
After months of thoughtful planning and prayer (mostly asking the Lord if He were suuuuure He didn’t want something else because I was now profoundly stressed and uncomfortable), I did just that. I started applying for travel nurse jobs by January, landed a contract in February, and was working in the Northeast by March.
As a travel nurse with 5-months of experience, let me summarize it for you: I basically do short-term contract work at a hospital, and my life looks fabulous while in reality it’s extremely difficult. You dive into a new job, a new city, a new community, and you’re expected to be acclimated in a week if not less.
I have never been more challenged in my life. Honestly, moving to the East Coast from the Midwest is a culture shock. It’s not just the stop signs at the end of the on-ramp to the highway. It’s not just this weird sounding “a” that I’ve picked up. It’s so many things all rolled up into one. And just as I got comfortable with all the wonderful people I’ve come to know and love, I get to do it all over again in a whole new city, hospital, and region of the country.
I don’t have much expectation for my next contract. I really didn’t have any expectations of my current location or job. I just knew that I’d find joy. Why? Because I’d be doing as the Lord asked, and I knew somewhere in the Bible, Jesus promised that “my joy would be complete” or something like that if I followed Him. (Hint, it’s John 16: 24).
So, I willingly followed His will over my own. To be honest, I had (and have) hissy fits, I’ve ugly cried more times than I can remember, and I question what in the world He was (and is) having me do, but I’ve stopped running away. I stopped running away from His will, and I do it, however begrudgingly and imperfectly.
Two years ago, I found joy in romantic relationships, my work, and in travel. I thought I needed these three things to have joy. I thought following the Lord’s will would bring me back the joy I once had in these three realms. (Hint: apparently the Lord has other plans).
To find joy, I thought I needed to find the perfect guy. I thought I couldn’t be happy alone. I thought I needed someone else to revolve my life around. I thought a relationship had to be easy to be right. I thought “the one” had to exist, and if I didn’t do everything right, I’d never meet him or keep him around. I thought I had to be perfect to be loved. I thought people in relationships were automatically happier than single people.
As happy as a relationship can be, relationships are difficult.
Dealing with estranged families and weird relationships at work and in my personal life, I’ve learned that relationships (romantic and otherwise) are not just the perfect pictures I see on Facebook or build up in my head. Every relationship has difficulties, and each person brings in his or her own inherent difficulties. They all have a lot of cracks underneath the surface that can either bring people together or farther apart. Anyone who tells you otherwise is kidding themselves or trying to sell you something. On dates, I discovered guys were quite often selling me a false version of themselves to impress me. Dating became…disappointing.
Well, my love life was unfulfilling, but nursing didn’t have to be! To find joy, I thought that meant work had to change. I thought I needed new challenges at work. I thought it meant I needed to find a job where my patients were kind, appreciated me, and cared about their health. I thought it meant I needed to have perfect co-workers who never lost their patience with me, other staff members, or patients. I thought I needed a better schedule with less night shifts and weekends.
As challenging as work initially can be, work is essentially the same.
Patients still annoy me and demand more from me than I can ever give them. Co-workers still lose their patience with patients (and the stories are still equal parts hilarious and horrifying). Miscommunications still happen. I actually work more weekends than I did at my permanent job and have a lot less say over my schedule. Medicine patients are actually less interesting to me than surgical patients. I float more often than I used to. It took a couple months for me to feel…bored.
As bad as any day is at work, I knew I had 4 days off in an unfamiliar place, full of new adventures as experiences. I could have bad days in Wisconsin, I could have bad days in the Northeast. But I’m conveniently located to big cities like New York City and Boston as well as cool places like the Maine and the Ben and Jerry’s Factory in Vermont. To find joy, I thought that meant my free time needed to change. I thought I needed to explore far-off cities and find the places and people that create epic stories.
As exciting as traveling initially can be, every place is essentially the same.
Every place has a food you have to try. Every place has a unique, cool things that they plaster on their postcards. Every place has magnets that you can collect, or a view that everyone wants to capture on their camera, or whatever. Every place has something, and that “something” is surprisingly similar to other places’ somethings. After a couple weekend trips, travel lost its luster. It became a bit…repetitive.
So, I’m back to square one. I’m a little miserable travel nursing. As much as I rationalize that I’m happy, the silence of my heart knows I’m unhappy being so far away from my family and friends. Relationships, work, and now even traveling, didn’t bring me joy, so what do I have left?
Nothing. Absolutely nothing.
I have no earthly thing left that I expect to make me happy or bring me joy. Yet, I have found it. I have found joy. Sure, I get angry, sad, whatever, but I have a baseline of joy that the world cannot strip away from me. Why?
I have found my joy in everything – good, bad, mundane, exciting, new, old, painful, healing, relaxing, etc. – through the Lord.
I no longer expect anything on earth to make me happy or bring me joy. Happiness is now a bonus when it used to be an expectation. Joy is a Person I have with me at all times, no matter how I feel, how much I doubt, how much I sin, how much I screw up, or how far away I try to run.
So, after over a year of struggle, it’s all right. Everything is all right. I have peace and joy in the fact that I belong to the Lord. He can do with me whatever He wants. And He wants me to love Him, wherever I am, with whomever I am with, whatever circumstance I am in.
Yeah, my life isn’t what I expected or planned, but it’s OK. God created me. He can certainly also handle the details of my life. He has me where I need to be.
A famous Yiddish proverb says, “Man plans and God laughs.” As I typically hear it, it’s “God looks at man’s plans and laughs.” I used to be so insulted by this phrase. I’ve been a woman with a five-year plan since I could basically conceive what a “future” was. I didn’t like that God would laugh at me. I’m struggling enough over here, Big Man in the Sky! Laughing at me isn’t appreciated!
But God laughs as I laugh at my baby nephew as he cries desperately for a bottle that’s seconds away from being ready for him. God laughs as we laugh at someone anxiously awaiting news that we already know is good. God laughs because He has something so much better already on its way.
The phrase really ought to be, “God looks at man’s own plans and laughs.” He laughs at the plans we make for ourselves because He knows us better than we know ourselves. He knows what in life is actually going to make us happy and bring us complete joy. He’s got a plan that’s fulfilling, joyful, everything you could ever want because it’s what and who He created you to be.
All it requires from us is surrender. It’s deceivingly simple and extraordinarily difficult.
And I can tell you from experience, that surrender to the Lord’s will brings joy. It’s a happiness, a joy, a peace of mind, a contentment, that the world cannot give you. It will be difficult. It will be painful. It will be challenging. But it will be worth it.
As Mother Teresa once said, “We are at Jesus’ disposal. If He wants you to be sick in bed, if He wants you to proclaim His work in the street, if He wants you to clean the toilets all day, that’s all right, everything is all right. We must say, “I belong to you. You can do whatever you like.” And this is our strength. This is the joy of the Lord.”
Surrender to the Lord’s will. Only in the Lord will your joy be complete.