I had just begun my initiation to religious life when a very kind Little Sister offered to share with me the secret to joy.
Of course, I wanted to know the secret, I responded!
JOY, she confided, is a matter of putting Jesus first, Other people second and Yourself last.
Her advice made a lot of sense and, for me, it has mostly proven true. When we pay more attention to God and other people than to ourselves, the result is usually a deep and imperturbable sense of joy.
Recently, someone suggested another acronym based on the word joy.
JOY, I learned, can stand for Jesus, Old and Young people coming together. To express it in mathematical terms, Jesus + Old + Young = JOY!
Pope Francis would love this equation, since he has often expressed his desire to see a new embrace between the old and the young. “The young are focused on the future and they face life with energy and dynamism,” Pope Francis wrote, adding that they are tempted to give little attention to their roots, especially the gifts transmitted to them by their parents, their grandparents and the society in which they live.
“Helping the young to discover the living richness of the past, to treasure its memory and to make use of it for their choices and opportunities, is a genuine act of love towards them,” Pope Francis suggested in Christus Vivit, the document he wrote after last year’s synod on young people.
“A genuine act of love” – helping young people to treasure their roots is a beautiful gift we adults can give them – and there is no better time than Christmas to give this gift because the holidays naturally offer many opportunities to gather, reminisce and do things together!
Don’t despair if the youngsters in your family seem unwilling to disconnect from their mobile devices in order to partake in your family’s cherished Christmas traditions or stories. A recent survey cited in the Wall Street Journal found that more than 90 percent of teenagers and young adults are able to retell family stories when asked, even if they seemed uninterested while the stories were being told.
Young people absorb more from family stories than most adults think, especially if those stories are humorous or entertaining, or if they convey timeless life lessons. Such stories help the young to feel that they belong to a larger family or culture. Family stories help them to develop roots and a sense of identity, and they offer guides and values for living.
Another study found that children who were more aware of their family history were more resilient and experienced less anxiety.
A third study found that when parents related personal stories describing negative experiences and how they were able to overcome them their children had better social and academic skills.
In Christus Vivit, Pope Francis tells young people how important it is to be rooted in their family and cultural history. “It pains me to see young people sometimes being encouraged to build a future without roots, as if the world were just starting now,” he wrote. “It is impossible for us to grow unless we have strong roots to support us and to keep us firmly grounded. It is easy to drift off when there is nothing to clutch or hold onto.”
Sue Shellenbarger, the Wall Street Journal author who cites the studies I’ve mentioned, offers suggestions for successful family storytelling: 1) think it through in advance and come up with a few meaningful, interesting stories to tell during holiday gatherings; 2) choose stories that are relevant to youngsters’ current lives and struggles; 3) keep stories light and entertaining; 4) reframe old stories to find new meaning in them; and 5) include the actors’ viewpoints and emotions in your narratives.
I’ll add a suggestion of my own: I’ve found that self-deprecating humor is endearing, especially with teens and young adults. I think it makes us more approachable and allows others to admit their vulnerability.
Finally, as you prepare for family gatherings during the upcoming Christmas season, ask Our Lady of the Visitation to inspire you. During her own Advent, Mary visited her older cousin Elizabeth, who was also miraculously with child. While Mary brought Elizabeth the joy of Christ’s presence and helped her with household tasks, I am sure that Elizabeth offered Mary the gifts of a listening ear, encouragement, wise counsel and the affirmation of her special vocation.
Sister Constance Veit is director of communications for the Little Sisters of the Poor.