It was July 2016 when my perspective flipped. I was on a mission trip in Detroit for the week. We were sponsoring a cookout in Cass Park, and everyone in inner-city Detroit was welcome. There was food, inflatables, a concert, and hundreds of people crowding like bees in a hive. That day changed my outlook on life forever.
I was walking around the crowded little park. Everyone was so kind, and it encouraged me to be kind. You feel so alive when you’re happy. I kept walking, scouting out people to start a conversation with. I stopped to watch some kids play duck duck goose in a tightly packed circle. They all smiled and giggled like they had a hidden secret locked in the depths of that huddle. One small girl with cornrows and an oversized T-shirt looked up at me with sparkling brown eyes. She took my hand with a smile so wide, I let her pull me in any direction she pleased. She brought me over to the small circle and cocked her head looking up at me.
“Will you play with us?” she pleaded.
“Yes!” I replied readily. I sat down, and she plopped right into my lap. I scanned the circle, examining the faces around me. All the kids had the brightest smiles on their faces. They clenched their hands and shook with excitement, waiting to be called a goose. One small boy tapped me on the head, and I popped out of my daze. I realized quickly that the little girl wasn’t planning on moving off my lap, so I picked her up like a baby and started to run after the boy who chose me. She bounced up and down, her tiny head bobbing. She was so precious. She laughed hard belly laughs. The little boy slid on his knees in the grass, safe in his spot. I spun the girl around in a circle, her feet dangling.
“Was that fun?” I asked.
“Yes!” she said, resting her head on my chest. Then she exclaimed, “I love you.”
I smiled so wide my mouth ached. Then and there I realized something: these kids were filled with so much joy. And I wanted to be just like them. They had so little, yet their happiness shined brighter than the sun.
At first I didn’t understand, but then I came up with a theory: happiness is joy because of circumstances, while joy is happiness no matter the circumstances. And where can we find joy? In love. Love for places, love for people, love for Jesus, and love for life. And that’s what these kids had. They didn’t place their happiness in material things, like the latest iPhone, but in the happiness of others and making simple memories with deep meaning. And I wanted to be just like them.
On the ride home, I thought a lot about my life, my accomplishments thus far, and how I lucky I was. Unlike most of the kids in Cass Park that day, I have a stable home, and virtually everything I want or need is handed to me. Yet these kids are so much happier. Their happiness pours out of them like new paint, even though some nights they don’t have a dinner on the table. I don’t know why we have been given such different lives, but I do know this: I am very lucky to have a life full of privileges, and I plan to live it to the fullest. I will do this by creating joy and sharing it with everyone. I promised this to myself, forever.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.