The paradox of joy

Last night in the pitch dark, I trekked to the beach in below-freezing temperatures in order to see the “big waves” with my family. (The waves were enormous, and we all wanted to see them up close). We don’t normally do things like this, even though we’ve been renting a beach house for the winter while our house with the formerly-caved-in-ceiling gets fixed.

I am not the kind of person who likes to be uncomfortable. I’ve designed my career to be the kind where I can stay home every single day and not have to wake up early or interact with people if I don’t want to. I usually don’t want to. I prefer a slow pace to my life, and I guard it with unflinching determination (read: I don’t get out much). It takes me a huge amount of mental preparation to even go to the library, and I love the library. Granted, since we moved to the outskirts of our sprawling town, our closest library is 15 minutes away. I also have 3 kids to get ready before we go anywhere, and if I’m in my pajamas at that point, then there’s my own personal hygiene to contend with. But the point is, I usually prefer the comfort of my own home to pretty much anything outside of it.

So yesterday, when John asked me if I wanted to go with him and our almost-7-year-old Lilah to the beach, I said no thanks. We had been out all day and had just gotten home. I had settled in on the couch with my laptop in hand, ready to answer the last bit of email for the week. I knew what the beach looked like right then. It’s pretty. And dark. And windy. And freezing.

But I’ve been thinking lately about doing hard things. About how the things we were afraid to do or didn’t want to do are the things we remember most, and fondest. Like the story John tells me of when he jumped out of a hot tub into a freezing cold pool with his friends when it was 20 degrees outside. Like when I went to an 80s dance party in the middle of Portland and danced with internet friends and strangers until the night was done.

Then I started thinking…maybe that’s why there is so much of my life that I don’t remember. Because I was safe in my home, snuggled up with my book and my toast and my chai. I was comfortable in my solitude. I didn’t choose to do hard, uncomfortable things.

So I stepped out last night with John, our schnauzer Colby, and our 8, 6, and 2 year old onto the frozen sand path that would lead us to the ocean. I couldn’t move my face after the first minute, but the stars were so bright it didn’t matter. John paused to show me how to see the rest of Orion, in addition to his belt. Colby tugged us on and on. 

When we started up the sand dunes and got our first glimpse of the water (and our first shock of the icy ocean wind), Nolan started to get nervous and asked to go back home. I can understand why…the ocean at night is formidable. It’s thunderous and black with white foam, and even though the beach stretches out for a long time in front of it, you can’t help thinking, “What if a tsunami happened right now, and the ocean came and swallowed us whole?” Or at least, Nolan and I can’t help thinking that. 

“We’re building character here!” is all John said in response.

We kept walking closer to the inky waves, though it’s hard to judge the distance at night. Nolan kept saying, “Stop! We’re going to walk in the water!” But of course, we didn’t. When we finally got to our destination, we stood and looked up at the stars and down at the water and out into the darkness. We stomped our feet on the crunchy sand. We turned to each other and giggled a little. When we’d gotten our fill, we turned around and started back home.

“You know what you’re really going to appreciate when we get home?” John asked. “What?” said Nolan. “Warmth.” And we did (especially 2-year-old Charlotte, who didn’t have gloves for our journey and ended up with red, cold hands from taking them out of her pockets so much). But more than that, we felt alive and invigorated. We felt the truth in our hearts that discomfort brings comfort into sharp relief, and that’s what good memories are built on.

Like most true things, joy is a paradox. We most often find it, not when we’re doing things that bring us immediate pleasure and gratification, but in disrupting our lives with something that is difficult, out-of-the-ordinary, inconvenient. So this year, instead of avoiding hard things, I’m going to start wrapping my arms around them and jumping into them on purpose. I want to become the kind of person who is not afraid of discomfort, but who appreciate it and heartily go after it.