The Growth Tool You're not Considering: Celebration

As we continue in our learning series about growth, we will be looking at growth related to something most of us have not given thoughts to, and that is the role celebration plays in our growth journey.

This particular lesson will teach us how we can approach life with an expectant heart and the courage to trust God’s good gifts. Licensed marriage and family therapist, and author, Nicole Zasowski, joined us to discuss “The Growth Tool You’re Not Considering -Celebration.”

Talking about what led her to write her new book, ‘What If It’s Wonderful?’ Nicole gives us an insight into what it means to experience loss and how it can affect how we express joy. Nicole says, “when people read the title and see confetti on the cover, they assume it was born out of a season of joy and celebration. In part, it was, but it was largely born out of a season that is largely characterized by change and loss.” According to her, going through the season of loss does not only stop at a loss itself, like the death of a loved one, a broken relationship, etc. There is also the cost. “The cost is the impact on your identity and your sense of safety,” she says.

However, another cost of the season of loss Nicole realized is that when she entered a season characterized by more joy, good news, and celebration, her joy was accompanied by a lot of fear. Nicole says she “was hesitant to fully embrace that joy because when you’ve been through so many hard things, sometimes it feels easier to not hold the joy than to somethings that might break.” Most people don’t realize that joy is the most vulnerable feeling we feel because it is automatically accompanied by the feeling of loss, disappointment, and even devastation.

Robert believes that the conversation about celebration and growth is crucial because many single parents have experienced so much hurt, disappointments, and hard things that can hinder them from hoping again. “We want to grow in this season, but often, it feels like the best days are behind us,” Robert says. We rarely think of celebration as a means to grow because it feels like there’s so little to celebrate in a single parent’s life. “The day in and day out can just drain us, and all we can just do is just get by,” Robert adds.

How is celebration an important tool for growth & how is it helpful and hopeful to consider celebration a discipline?

According to Nicole, most of us have a wrong perspective about celebration. We sometimes view celebration as a reaction to good news or a reward for some accomplishment or goal achieved. Instead, Nicole thinks, “we see our joy and celebrations sitting on the other side of a goal realized or dream achieved or some change in our circumstances.” Nicole states that her view about celebration is not to say that celebration is not good in acknowledging good events, but we have narrowed the definition of celebration to be a reward or a reaction instead of what it is, which is a rhythm that helps us cultivate joy.

Nicole’s research about celebration took her into the Old Testament of the Bible. She discovered that all the beautiful feasts and festivals outlined were not done based on how the people of God felt or their moods. “God’s people did not celebrate when they were in the mood to celebrate or when all their work was done, and they wanted to reward themselves, or because it was a good time to do so,” Nicole says. But the truth is that they celebrated because it was time to do so, and they were in rhythm. It didn’t matter how they felt or what was going on in their lives. They celebrated at the appointed time, every 50 years, seven years, or yearly. They celebrated when the feasts and festivals came. According to Nicole, “this made it clear to me that this is a rhythm of remembering God’s faithfulness and goodness, not simply a reaction or a reward for our own.”

In agreement with Nicole’s biblical point of view on celebration, Kimberley Mitchell refers to God’s Word, which admonishes us to “always be joyful.” However, many of us fail always to celebrate because we ask ourselves, “what do I have to celebrate?”  

Why are we hesitant to celebrate?

A huge part of why we’re hesitant to celebrate is that we mostly feel we don’t deserve it. However, Nicole has drawn a list of five major reasons people are hesitant to celebrate based on conversations with her clients, her own life, and her community.

1. Our joy is accompanied by a lot of fear. Therefore, it feels easier to keep our expectations low and convince ourselves not to hope or dream.

2. We are waiting for a reason to celebrate, and we are not considering celebration as a rhythm and discipline.

3. We are not sure how to reconcile the invitation to celebrate with our value of humility. We worry that celebration is somehow self-aggrandizing or draws attention to ourselves, which is not true.

4. We are all a part of a community, and not everybody is living the same story at the same time. We worry by saying, what does it look like to rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn when we live different stories and how can we join others' experiences well?

It could mean we are the ones celebrating, and we are afraid that our joy will bump into someone else’s pain, or how do we celebrate someone else, especially when their dreams step on the toes of our own. “So basically, when our circumstances oppose someone else’s. How do we celebrate someone else or celebrate ourselves sensitively?” says Nicole.

5. Based on Nicole’s experience. The relationship she had with God in her painful season was so precious to her in how she grew through the struggles. She was sad, having grown up in the church and being a believer most of her life, that she had no context for what it looks like to engage with God deeply in her joy, and she was worried that she would lose the growth and intimacy with Christ in the light of her joy that she had so clearly in the dark. She was afraid to step into that fully because she didn’t know what that looked like.

Robert asks Nicole, what happened to you that you decided to celebrate or move towards joy amid your difficult season?

Nicole says that it takes a lot of practice to celebrate during difficulties. However, she adds that she started experiencing her moments of joy when she first held her son after years of infertility and many miscarriages. “Holding him in my hand, God just gave me this picture of in the light of this moment, holding literally my gift of joy and God holding me in that place,” she says. God is not separate from our joy or on call when we need him in our next season of suffering. He is always there and is engaged in our moments.

Nicole gives an example of Zechariah and Elizabeth in Luke Chapter and how they reacted differently to God’s promise to them about the birth of their son after waiting for many years. While Elizabeth readily received God as her celebrator even though she has been so present with her as her comforter in her season of struggle, Zechariah was slow to trust God as his celebrator. He wanted proof before he could trust the promise.

We behave this way, especially after going through a difficult season for a long time. We doubt God and the season of celebration He promises us. But even amid our doubts and lack of trust and faithlessness, God is still faithful to give us what He has promised, just as he did for Zechariah. This is because God’s faithfulness is not dependent on our faith, and His goodness is not a function of our goodness. “There’s just so much joy available to us when we can encounter God in those moments, too,” Nicole adds.

How do painful seasons shape our celebration?

Nicole believes that painful seasons shape our celebration by reorganizing what we love. After taking an honest look into her life and when she had been disappointed, she realized that some of her disappointments were life looking differently than she had planned or hoped, or the no and missed opportunity.

However, those were not the main reasons for her disappointment. “A lot of my disappointment was because I had expected more joy from the gift than it was meant to give,” she says. What sits at the center of our affection will determine the association of our joy.

All the good things we desire, like relationships, babies, a happy home, etc., are unquestionably good gifts. But even though these are good gifts, one thing Nicole wants us to understand is that even the best gifts in life do not have to be the source of our identity and security. “For me, those seasons of suffering just showed me I was expecting more joy from some of those gifts in my life that it was meant to give,” she says.

Robert agrees that certain moments or situations in our life can reorganize things we haven’t spent time valuing. “When things are taken away, and the rod is pulled out, you have to reorganize,” he adds. For example, although remarried, Robert still misses things about those days of being a single parent. Things like his closeness with his daughters and the moments of intimacy he felt with God. These are some of the things he celebrated during his painful season. “Had I not gone through the struggles, I don’t think it would have come to fruition as much as it was evident to me in those seasons,” says Robert.

What is the difference between celebration and escape?

According to Robert, one thing that comes to mind when he thinks about celebration is a person trying to pump themselves up and just trying to feel good through positive thinking.

Nicole believes that celebration is misbranded as something that can take us away from Christ or it’s a means of escaping or emotional numbing. So, escape is a reaction to pain and something that takes us away from our relationship with ourselves, other people, or Christ. It simply disconnects us.

Celebration, on the other hand, is an avenue of connection. It’s an action and discipline that draws us to God and each other and makes us more aware of what we are feeling and the truth about who we are and our safety in God’s economy. In a nutshell, Nicole says celebration “is that rhythm and discipline that draws us towards and connects versus an escape that numbs.”

Reiterating what Nicole says, Robert believes that celebration and escape are both choices, but one is a choice to dissociate, to get away from and numb out, and the other is to almost head into (something). He says we think about looking for things to be grateful for, but it goes beyond being grateful. It’s about being grateful in every moment, just as we celebrate National Single Parents Day, Mothers’ Day, or other religious celebrations, not because we feel like it but because it’s a part of the fabric of who we are.

What are some ways we can practice celebration even if our circumstances don’t change, and how can we teach our children?

Kimberly states, “we do not always get to choose our circumstances, but we always get to choose how we respond to them.” However, it is not an easy thing to do.

Nicole lists some of her favorite ways of practicing celebration to answer the question.

1. Savoring  

Savoring celebrates the ordinary irrespective of if change happens or not. “This is not about waiting for change in your circumstances. This is about living a beautiful life with God right where you are,” says Nicole.

This practice is essential because our brains are stickier with painful information. So they only pick up what they think they need, which are mostly painful and large things that our brains believe we have to worry about.

We also have this awful tendency to tell our joy how we can improve upon it. So even if we do something great like a presentation and we got a good compliment, we still think about better ways to have done it and worry about why we were called a good speaker and not a great speaker.

All these things are going on in the brain. So savoring is our practice against that, and the way we do this is by taking a snapshot of the moment we are living right now that brings us joy. This present moment could be watching a child playing in the backyard or a conversation with a friend. “Just ask your five traditional senses about what they will remember at that moment. So what do you see, hear, smell, taste, or feel. And that helps your brain capture that moment in a way that it can carry it forward, recall it and celebrate it later,” Nicole says.

2. Gratitude

Gratitude helps us notice and name what is good, but we don’t often talk about expressing gratitude or thanksgiving doubles the joy we glean from gratitude versus just feeling grateful in our hearts. For example, verbalizing why we are thankful for a friend in our lives instead of just feeling thankful in our hearts for that person increases the recipient’s joy and doubles our joy compared to only feeling it. “Thanksgiving is the avenue we have been given to engage with God in our joy and cultivate intimacy with Him,” Nicole adds.  

How does grief infect our prayers?

Our experience with pain infects our prayers. In Nicole’s case, she protected herself with pessimism such that even when she prayed for the miracles, she still prepared to mourn and keep her expectations low.

A similar reaction to our pain is cynicism. The difference between cynicism and pessimism is that it doubts people’s motives. Nicole says, “For me, it got projected into my relationship with God. I was cynical about God’s motives. I knew He could but I had a perspective of He would probably do it for someone else and not for me. He would probably bring the breakthrough is somebody else story and not for me.”

Cynicism also makes us protected in our prayers and stops us from having an expected heart. “I kept praying, but it wasn’t filled with hope or wonder about what He can do,” Nicole adds. This is why her book’s title is ‘What if it’s Wonderful’ because it interrupts each of her what-ifs questions she was carrying around.

What do I do to move in a different direction from cynicism?

For Nicole, she asks herself, what does it look like to celebrate when I’m suffering? It isn’t about toxic positivity or faking it until you make it. Instead, it boils down to going back to the rhythm. “If I think about celebration as a rhythm of remembrance - of remembering God’s faithfulness in my story, remembering the ways that He has moved in my heart and my circumstances, that gives me hope and a wonder about what He’s going to do next,” she says.

Many of us see our celebration as requiring a change in circumstance, but sometimes it’s about seeing a God that doesn’t change, who is the same yesterday, today, and forever.
That is when we can begin to ask ourselves, what if it is wonderful? “We don’t hope of what we receive. We hope because of who we receive and regardless of my circumstances, God’s going to be there. I’m promised His presence in joy and in pain. And that’s what makes it safe to hope,” says Nicole.

What has changed growth wise in your life because of choosing this discipline from your experience?

Nicole refers back to reorganization because this practice highlighted gifts standing awkwardly in the wrong position of her heart. No matter how good these gifts are, if “they are standing at the wrong position of our hearts, we will feel it,” she adds. So reorganization makes her see God at the center of her affection.

Kim and Robert recap by saying expressing gratitude and savoring are disciplines and rhythms we must be ready to practice if we want to experience growth. Kim adds that it’s essential to practice these things because our children watch us and learn about what we do when we have more joy. “What a great thing to teach them as they grow and move on in life,” she adds.

Kim also believes that verbally expressing gratitude is vital. For her, she believes there must be a reason God puts someone in her heart, so she must act because saying something to someone can change how they feel. “The problem is we don’t do that. We have these thoughts, but we don’t turn them into actual dialogue, words, and blessings,” says Robert. Kim agrees by saying we often save all the compliments and things we are grateful for about people for their funerals. “Let’s say them now when it matters,” she adds.

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