Joie de Vivre

[a vignette of confessions from a so-called "happy" girl]

An African sunset, taken in the summer of 2008

An African sunset, taken in the summer of 2008

A few years ago, I took a test based in positive psychology that identified my top 5 strengths from a list of over 30.*


    I didn't blink twice. Of course.


    That peaked my interest and seemed important.


     This stroked the ego-scholar part of me, the part that carries The Book of Questions around in her purse.


     All I could picture was a crop of look-a-like houses being "developed" in my friends' suburban neighborhoods. Necessary, but not original.


   The last strength on my list fell like a gavel and a guilty verdict from the high court of personality traits. I frowned at the screen. What a stupid quality, when I knew from my other friends who were taking this test that there were other, more useful ones like Ideation, Adaptability, and Maximizer.

Positivity. Who needs that?

*StrengthsQuest actually poses a 100+ questions that forces you to choose between two options regarding your behavior, mindset, and preference. This task is especially difficult when both options appeal to you (i.e. "Do you like people? // Do you like alone time?") but you have to choose anyway because if you don't, you could end up getting strengths like Undecided or Apathetic or Middle of the Road. By the end of the test, I was so fed up with having to choose that I assumed my top 5 would include Annoyed or Prone to Violence.


My sort-of boss takes me out to lunch to make sure I'm not going crazy.

A regular 6-month "are you insane yet?" check-up. Every job should have those.

We order a variety of Middle Eastern dishes that I've never tried and can't pronounce. I'm just happy to know he's paying. Who cares if it's named shawarma? It's free. It's delicious.

We are the only ones in the restaurant. He asks the usual "So, how's it going?" and I tell him it's hard for me to know how I am doing right now. It's always been hard. I'm always good. I always have been.

I do not know why.

And so he replies, in his I've-seen-crazy wisdom, "There are some people for whom joy comes easy. Some people, who had allowances and after school snacks and two parents in their home. Like you and me. For people like us, joy comes easy."

I nod my head, because there aren't words for how much I disagree with his statement.

I disagree so much that I agree.


When we drive up to the women's prison, I notice the dresses first.

"Why are they different colors?" I ask. Or maybe someone else does. Or maybe no one asks it out loud, but we are all thinking it, watching chocolate arms flex at the end of their gingham sleeves from the window of our van.

"The color symbolizes their crime."

Red for theft. Yellow for assault. Blue for murder.

We meet the prisoners in the chapel; a sea of reds and yellows-no blues. Blues aren't permitted to attend chapel services. I am going to share my testimony. I stand up. I grip the pages of my green and blue and brown striped journal, demanding courage from some place on high.

A thought enters my mind: If my sin was a color, what would it be?

I imagine deep purple. A royal color worthy of the proudest do-gooder.

I read my testimony off the page, pausing between each sentence so the translator can make Lugandan sense of my words. Her voice rises and falls with my emotion, and by the end I am crying and she is resting a hand on my shoulder.

I am 19 years old and I know now in stark relief and before a chapel full of prisoners that all my worldly comfort has come at such a great cost.


In our communal bathroom, she confronts me with a question.

"How can you be so happy?"

I'm still not sure why. Maybe her curiosity was genuine back then and maybe my smile conveyed some sort of cosmic secret about happiness.

But faced with her sincerity, I don't know how to respond.

The fluorescent lights buzz above our heads and I blink and feel, finally, like I've been found out.

I am that girl. Coddled. The baby of the family. The one who danced in ballets and kicked soccer balls and sang solos in her school play. I've never broken a bone or worn braces or buried a loved one. I read Real Simple and I infuse my water with citrus and I can relate to Taylor Swift songs.

"Oh dear God, please save me from my joie de vivre," I think as I stare back at the flush of her tear-stained face.

Today, more rooted in the center of myself, I add this to my prayer: "But if the joie de vivre is from you, dear God, please don't let me lose it."


Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.

-Source Unknown (likely Rev. John Watson)

I have come to rest on this: If I find joy in myself and in my surroundings, then I find that God has been good to me. (Sometimes this works in the reverse.) If God has been good to me, then there's no reason to be ashamed. 

I make it my mission to find joy; there's no reason to be ashamed.

I have come to rest on kindness.

Some people need to be strict. They must be tough. Our world depends on their tight and calloused exterior.

Some people need to be soft. They must be tender. Our world depends on their warmth and wholeheartedness.

That second group is where I make my home. I visit the first group, especially on Monday mornings and in the left lane of Route 128, but the second group is me with my defenses down. Vulnerable and sensitive. Reminding the rough players that every game has consequences, and when the cards are left folded on the table, souls get up and walk away.

Souls can't be measured up, dressed up, cut up, locked up, chewed up, sped up. 

Souls must be seen by a loving eye, with a glint of joy in its corner.