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Joy is a Choice


by Greg Lewin


On a recent trip to Kenya I had the good fortune of meeting the most remarkable priest. He had come to rural Kenya 48 years ago from Italy in order to pursue the church’s mission of spreading the gospel. When he arrived, young, unprepared and without guidance, he relied on his instincts to point the way. And so he began, with the help of friends from Italy, to create projects that would help the local community help themselves. He told me many times, “I don’t give charity, I offer support and resources to those in need who are willing to put in the work.” His efforts have transformed the region. Under his leadership, with the effort of the community and the support of many, they have built schools for the abled and disabled, health clinics and a massive water project that provides over 15,000 families with clean water. When you visit the region, meet the people and inspect the projects you immediately realize that things are very different there. Now this priest and community are forging ahead with a compelling economic development project that could potentially change the conversation in this region of the world from surviving to thriving.


After four days with Father Romano I had the chance to participate in an oral history interview. About an hour into the interview he unexpectedly began to talk about the many political battles he had to endure to complete his good works. After detailing one particularly difficult situation in 1973 the Father finished this story with this remarkable statement, “That was the last time I felt angry inside.”


Apparently, it was so painful for Father Romano to hold this anger that he spent the next two years praying, meditating and working on himself so that he would never feel this anger again. When we asked him how he eventually overcame this personal challenge he answered in his priestly manner, “I don’t give somebody permission to steal money from my pocket so why would I give them permission to steal my joy.” If someone does something wrong to you and they later apologize with complete sincerity and ask for your forgiveness, say to them, “I am happy for you because you have realized that you made a mistake. But don’t feel happy for your self. You should have been happy inside despite what they have done. Joy is not theirs to take only yours to give.”


For Father Romano joy, as is anger, is a choice. For me this was a life changing insight. I believe most of us view these emotions, and many others, as dependent variables, hostage to circumstances and those who inhabit our circumstances. For the Father, these emotions are independent variables, ours alone to control. If it were possible for any of us to either make this change or simply approach this way of being, how different would we be? If it were possible to be calm when others were losing their composure, to be peaceful when others were filled with vengeful thoughts, or to be happy when circumstances were less then joyful, we would effectively rewire our entire biochemistry. The ramifications of less stress and anxiety would radically change your health, your ability to connect with others, and the quality of your decision making. With all this changed their is a good argument to be made that you would be a different person.


We don’t respond physically, emotionally and intellectually to experience. We respond to our perceptions of experience. And if we can learn to embrace the fact that these perceptions are of our choosing, then it is possible to believe that we are not victims of circumstance, we are beneficiaries of circumstance, because as things change we get to choose how we respond and react to change. With this awareness we transform ourselves from passive to active, from fearful to forceful, from risk averse to risk taking and from cautious to curious. When your boss is displeased with your work, is it an opportunity to learn more about your boss, is it an opportunity to learn more about yourself or is it simply a time to retrench and bemoan the choice of joining this company in the first place? One mindset points to the end, the other to a beginning. One mindset offers the prospect for growth and learning, the other for retreat. One mindset accepts change, the other fights change.


It is our perspective that enables us to change our experiences. And the key to changing our perspective to change our expectations. Father Romano was successful in making this change because he believed, or more specifically expected, that his efforts would create the changes he desired. Our moods, emotions and perspectives are less a question of what we have experienced and more a question of what we expect to experience.


Why does one investor see a falling stock as an opportunity and another as a reason to panic? What makes a gifted fighter quit when he suffers a forceful blow and a lesser fighter go on to victory? It’s not a matter of intellect or physical ability, it is a matter of expectations. Those who expect that with a further commitment of their time, energy, intellect and ability that things will change for the better go forward and those that believe that their efforts have little to do with what happens next resign.


The idea that joy is an option is a transformative notion. But if we wish to capitalize on that prospect we must come to grips with our expectations because they will inform our perspectives of what is likely to happen next.