Be a Source of Joy

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The first African American to medal in ski racing, Bonnie St. John is a graduate of Harvard and Oxford, Rhodes Scholar, and best-selling author. Here she describes how we can choose joy, healing, and spirituality in any circumstance.

By Bonnie St. John

Omega: You once said, “What you do when everything goes right doesn’t tell me who you are. It’s what you do after disaster that shows your character most.” How do you define this boldness in your own life?

Bonnie: That quote came from a speech that I did in Texas when an Army depot was downsizing; families there for generations were going to have to leave or be unemployed… [and] people were turning on each other in fear and desperation. It’s one of the hardest speeches I have ever given, and I prayed a lot about it. I ended up playing them a firsthand account of a steamboat on fire in the 1800s. I asked everyone to write down who they thought behaved the worst in this situation, and who behaved the best.  It wasn’t easy or a clear decision. Then [I asked them] to apply it to their own situation. This is a crisis.  When you look back, how do you want to have behaved? This is what shows your true character. It’s what you do now that really shows how you lived your life.

In my life, so many things went wrong, it’s hard to choose which one to talk about. My leg was amputated at age five. My father left before I was born. My mother married a man who abused my sister and me.

People who know me say, “You should have been an ax murderer. How is it that you find joy, and you laugh and smile so much?” So I wrote Live Your Joy, to share what I’ve learned about choosing joy repeatedly despite the situations that occur. Choosing positivity. Making things positive. Even during divorce, my ex-husband and I struggled to find ways to use it as an opportunity to grow. We didn’t manage to save our marriage, but we saved our relationship and we continue to be collaborative parents.

Omega: What is the essential quality you would recommend others cultivate to have a sense of empowerment and live boldly?

Bonnie: Consider the difference between ‘happiness’ and ‘joy.’ Happiness can be defined as something that comes from outside in. For example, if I go to a movie, it makes me happy. If I buy a new car, it makes me happy. I do something nice for a friend and it makes me happy. But joy can be something that comes from inside. If I’m just sitting still and I take time to reflect on any of those things that made me happy, I can experience my inner joy…without having done anything, gone anywhere, bought anything. Nothing has to change. I can source joy.

Then take that to the next level. I can be the source of joy and positivity for people around me. I can choose that. We make those choices every day, whether we’re going through a divorce or a funeral, or even a wedding. Is the wedding about families coming together, or is it about showing off? Is it about the bling? Is it about the wedding or is it about the marriage? What are the choices we’re making about joy every day? About being a source of joy, and a source of values, and meaning in good and bad times.

Omega: In your book How Strong Women Pray, you explore the intersection of spiritual life and leadership. Where do you see that intersection in your life?

Bonnie: The intersection between leadership and faith is about finding strength, purpose, meaning, and values. Praying is restorative. It’s connective, whatever your faith may be. Some people think of prayer as a gumball machine. You put in a quarter and get out a gumball. When you were a kid, you probably prayed: “Please give me a bicycle.” If you didn’t get one, you would be mad at God. The strong women leaders I interviewed had grown beyond gumball prayer.  They consciously used prayer to change themselves and to make themselves better leaders.      

When I decided to write the book, I had practiced a deliberate prayer routine for a number of years. At the same time, I was giving a lot of motivational speeches in corporate America but I felt I couldn’t talk about prayer. I realized how ironic it was to motivate other people but not talk about this really important thing that strengthens me every day. I knew there were many other strong women out there, people who we look up to, and we don’t really understand how they get their strength. I wanted to interview them about their prayer practices. I learned a thimbleful on my own, but talking to all these other women, I got decades of wisdom and learning.

Omega: What is the connection for you between prayer, healing, and joy?

Bonnie: Prayer is redemptive, and it is positive, but it’s also pretty intense. When I talk about my own story of being sexually abused, I talk about the healing. People don’t talk about that enough. It’s a hard process. And it’s not just prayer for me. Prayer gave me the strength to do the work, which took a long time—and it's never done.

One of the epiphanies I've had, and this is really counterintuitive, is that positive thinking is not joy. Positive thinking is often about: “The future is going to be better. I’m going to make my life better.” You can be a positive thinker and a workaholic and have no joy. I have done a lot of that. I finally learned that joy is in the present. Joy is being present to your feelings and feeling joy now. And I wasn’t very good at that before I did the healing work around my emotions and the abuse.

Omega: People who have great success tend to stay in the field where they achieved it. It’s not easy to reinvent ourselves and be successful in a variety of careers. How have you managed to do so and where is your current edge of inspiration?

Bonnie: I ask myself: What is my passion now? How am I going to act on that, given the situation, the resources, and where I am? If you continue asking yourself these questions in different decades of your life, different seasons in your life, the answers may change.

There are two problems where I feel like I can make a unique contribution right now. One of them is around “micro-resilience,” a term we [at Blue Circle Leadership] coined for high-performance resilience over small time scales. We’ve been doing the research for over four years now and tested it with more than 1,500 people. We’ve drawn on neuroscience, psychology, and physiology. The results for participants are fantastic! As one woman said, it’s like having all the debris washed off so you can be more you. Now it’s about mobilizing the resources to make it more widely available, putting together a larger package that will really help people to interact and benefit from it.

The other area that I feel I am uniquely positioned to make a difference for is women of color in leadership. Black, Asian and Hispanic women often aren’t participating in the advancement of women overall. I want to provide tools and opportunities that are accessible on a larger scale for women of color. And the communities that I’m a part of help me do that. It’s not something I can do alone.