It was our first full day in Yellowstone on a big “out west” vacation this summer. After lingering in the classic beauty of the Teton mountains for four days – we were ready for the otherworldly variety show of Yellowstone. All morning, we drove and hiked around the steamy, stinky geyser basin where everything looks like it belongs in a Tim Burton movie. Or maybe on another planet.
Late morning, we arrived and parked at the closest lot to Grand Prismatic Spring. We had seen photos of it – a colorful hot spring deeper than a 10-story building and wider than a football field. But as we walked toward the spring from the parking lot, we saw a great expanse of rainbow steam rising lazily up from the water’s surface. Rainbow steam! We were too far away to see the actual spring, but from left to right across the surface of the water was red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and purple steam.
Of course we tried to take of picture of this rainbow steam, but our phones could not capture it. We hiked up toward Fairy Falls to view it from above. It looks like an oil painting, with every color of the rainbow spilled out beautifully across its surface. We stared and stared. It is one of many moments from that trip out west that are imprinted on my mind. Any time I am sad, bored, annoyed, tired…I can call up the image of that rainbow steam and rainbow water. I can feel the thrill of three little boys on an adventure. I can smell the pine forest and Isaiah’s shampoo as I lift him up to see the spring from my eye level. I can taste the Costco trail mix.
And I can feel the awe and adventure, the relaxation of vacation. I can call to mind the joy, and dwell on it.
John Mark Comer taught about joy in his sermon at Bridgetown church last Sunday. He said it only takes 3 seconds for a negative memory to imprint on our brains. We are wired to focus on the negative – our brains are always scanning for threats. By contrast, joyful memories take 14 seconds to imprint on our brains. If we “take an imprint” of a joyful moment, these memories can release the same neurochemical happiness when they are recalled years later.
What if we intentionally pause for 14 seconds when we experience joy this Christmas season? Pause, soak it in with all five senses — enjoying the moment now, AND saving it for later.
They don’t have to be big moments, either. This week, Meijer had a display of Christmas mini cupcakes, $3.99 a dozen. I bought two dozen, because they were on special for 2 for $7.00. When Isaiah got home from school, he saw the stack of green and red cupcakes, right at his 6-yr-old eye level on the counter. He did a slow turn toward me with wide eyes and open mouth. “Are those all for US?!” he asked, with a look of pure Christmas magic on his face.
It was a mini-picture of the overboard good gifts God has given us this Christmas, and it felt great to sprinkle it over my kids. The moment made a little joy imprint of Christmas magic to save for later, when I feel really sad that we can’t spend Christmas day with all of us at my Mom and Dad’s house.
There are six distinct moments from 2020 of intense grief, fear or despair. Six negative imprints I can call up in an instant. Two of them had to do with the pandemic and one was news of a cancer diagnosis in our family. When I think about any one of them, I feel again the grief, fear or despair. Why not do that with joy?
Some of us are feeling little to no joy this holiday season. So what can we do about it?
I am going to try three things:
You can try to pause long enough to enjoy a moment AND make an imprint of it for later. I can already think of a few “joy imprints” I have from this holiday season.
- Seeing my Mom and Dad outside at a park when the weather was nice so we could really talk in person.
- Playing Monopoly with my sons and cracking up at my 10-yr-old’s impression of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.
- Having a “sleepover” in the guest room with my youngest – staying up late with special snacks and good books.
Redirect your mind.
Every time gloomy or fearful thoughts are surfacing, you can acknowledge them and then try to redirect your mind toward gratitude for safety or health. You can dwell on these things, and even ritualize them. At bedtime, our boys always have to say one thing they are thankful to God for. And at dinner they have to say what was their “high” from the day. These things help to imprint gratitude and joy.
Stay close to the source of joy.
God is the creator of joy, and the most joyful being in the universe. C.S. Lewis says in Mere Christianity, “He came to this world and became a man in order to spread to other men the kind of life He has by what I call ‘good infection.’” I am ready to catch some joy from Him. We have learned a lot about infectious things this year, haven’t we?
What are you doing to cultivate joy this week?