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Joy in the Small Things

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A few years ago I was visiting with a good friend who also happened to be my roommate for the duration of a ten-day teaching residency. It was day eight of the residency and we were both, as the Scottish might say, “knackered”. My friend, Jeanine, and I both absolutely love teaching and writing and teaching apprentice writers at these residencies is something we both look forward to. But we also noticed that the residencies beat us up physically and emotionally. Why is that? We wondered. How could doing the things you love also be the same things that overwhelm and exhaust us? And how to restock our diminished supply of energy? How to refresh the water in the well?
​We sat in wearied silence and pondered for a while. Then Jeanine told me a story. She had friends who lived near an Amish community, and though they themselves were not Amish, they decided to adopt some of the tenets of the Amish lifestyle. They worked as hard as they could at any task given to them. They determined to behave with integrity in commerce as well as all other parts of their lives. They told the truth, even if it wasn’t advantageous to do so. They lived as simply as possible: they bought only what they needed. They saved what they didn’t use or gave it away. In evenings instead of watching Netflix or face timing their friends, they read books.

They also ate their evening meal together. This was a critical part of coming together as family and connecting. “But it’s what they talked about that made the meal time so important,” Jeanine explained. Yes, they aired gripes and complaints as many families do when they meet over a meal. Yes, there were friendly reminders to do chores or homework. And then the father asked each person sitting at the table to share one thing that they did or that had happened to them that made them feel unhappy or anxious or stressed out. After each person gave his or her account, the father said, “Well, then, do less of that.” Then each person shared one thing that they did in their day that increased their joy. It might have been something as small as coloring in a coloring book or petting the next door neighbor’s new puppy. Whatever it was that each person shared, without fail, the father’s response was the same: “Well, then, do more of that.” Wow. How ridiculously wise are those pieces of advice! Could the path to joy really be as simple as doing less (or thinking less about) those things, people, activities that stress me out and doing more of the things that make me feel calm and happy? I’m not sure, but I’ve decided this week I’m going to give it a try.

– Gina Ochsner