Choose joy

She almost jumped out of the car in the still dark morning at the airport, about bursting in her eagerness to go with me on a grand adventure. We were to fly across the country together and meet her new niece, my new granddaughter. This sweet 7-year-old girl who had spent so much of the last few years saying goodbye to people she loved was being afforded the opportunity to be among the first to say hello to new life.

Her daddy pulled our luggage from the trunk. One. Two. Three. She looked for the fourth. It wasn't there. "My fun bag?" she asked, looking in the trunk for the backpack we'd so carefully packed with all the things to occupy her happily, the pillow for her head, the gluten-free food for the journey. It wasn't there. Instantly, I knew that I'd neglected to transfer it when we decided to take the other car. I watched her face begin to crumple. And then, I saw her regain composure.

"It's OK," she assured me, forcing a smile. "We're going on an adventure. It'll still be fun."

I marveled at her resilience as we walked through the airport. To be truthful, I'm not sure I would have been so cheerful if I'd left my fun bag in the car at home. I shifted the weight of the bag on my back. Computer. Gum. Snack. Books. Teabags. Chargers. I was sure leaving it behind would have dampened my spirits considerably. We found the only open store and purchased a small box of colored pencils and a bottle of water - not exactly the carefully chosen markers and coloring book left behind, but something.

As we settled onto the plane, she began to feel sick. Before we'd taken off, she'd used two of the handy plastic bags in the seat back. The flight attendant was so kind and fussed over her, bringing blankets, then ice, then ginger ale. All the while, this girl forced her whitened lips to smile. She felt better after we took off, and she assured us all she was fine. Still, I thought, this isn't exactly the best start to her much anticipated big adventure.

The next leg of the trip was much, much longer. I assured Sarah, my wee traveling companion, that she'd be fully entertained by the free seatback television with games and movies. She wouldn't even miss her bag. As we settled onto the plane, I worried about airsickness. She seemed to have conquered that, though, and then we heard the announcement: The in-flight entertainment system was down. There would be no screens for the flight from Michigan to Los Angeles.

I think we could have expected her to lose it just a little at this point. The kids behind us, who had a full spread of candy and two electronic devices each, already were whining. I watched the emotions play on her face as she took in the scene in their seats. She turned to me.

"This is the first time I have ever flown across the country on a plane. I think I'll just pay attention to where I am and the people I see and I'll be happy anyway, even without my fun bag. We can talk and make up stories. I'll just decide it's good."

And it was.

The entire experience brought to mind a conversation I'd had a few weeks earlier with my very first parenting buddy. Martha and I had welcomed our first children within a few months of each other. Those children are now 27. I was sharing with her how many genuine challenges have been presented to our family in the last few years - just one bump after another. I offered the observation that the experience had taught me how important it is to give children the tools to be resilient and to choose joy, and how I was going to be intentional in teaching it to the children still left at home. These two characteristics play a critical role in becoming happy and productive adults.

Some people, I think, have an innate affinity for choosing joy. Some temperaments find optimism comes more naturally. Sarah certainly appears to be one of them, and I thank God for that. That gift is a blessing indeed.

I know that some people have to work harder than others to find joy. All of us, though, can make a decision to cry at the curb when our bag is left behind or to look forward optimistically to what will unfold in place of our well-laid plans. We can choose.

A kid who crumbles in the face of a challenge or dissolves in the wake of sorrow needs to know that joy comes in the morning. But she also needs to know that in order to find the joy, she must throw off the covers and plant her feet on the floor and turn her face to the sun. We can help her there, show her how, give her the encouragement and tools she needs. We must teach resilience. There is something to be said for learning to choose joy, no matter what one's age.

Foss, whose website is elizabethfoss.com, is a freelance writer from Northern Virginia.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2016

@elizabethfoss