Both heart and mind are overflowing in anticipation this week. My bags are on their way to Nantucket, and in just a few days I will be too. Already I am imagining moving into my summer home, debating where to go for lunch Saturday (fried clams or lobster roll?), worship the next day in my summer church, brunch with Nantucket friends and then—two days later—the arrival of friends from Texas. Two months packed with joyful moments, little to no stress, time alone as eagerly anticipated as time with friends and family. I have a mental list of all the places I want to return to, as well as new places I want to check out.
Memory + anticipation. But anticipation is better.
C.S. Lewis wrote that joy has two components in addition to the experience itself—memory and anticipation. In Surprised by Joy, he described “an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction. I call it Joy, which is here a technical term and must be sharply distinguished both from Happiness and from Pleasure. Joy (in my sense) has indeed one characteristic, and one only, in common with them; the fact that anyone who has experienced it will want it again.”
Business consultants Randall Stone and Dan Clay agree: “Happiness researchers find that upwards of half of someone’s happiness is built in moments of anticipation and remembering. Happiness is as much about how we look forward to and look back on an event as it is about the event itself.”
As widows, we can live on our memories of the past, or we can create opportunities to live with joyful anticipation—always one more thing on the calendar to look forward to. We can take those very events that are our sinkholes—holidays, anniversaries, even long weekends—and turn them into keenly anticipated and enjoyed moments. And in doing so, we can create new happy memories for ourselves and for others.
Planning Joyful Moments, Creating Anticipation
In those weeks after Lev’s funeral—when the calls, visits and invitations dwindled—I gazed at my empty calendar and panicked. What am I supposed to do on evenings and weekends? I began planning my weeks in advance. On Sunday afternoons I looked at all the empty hours on my calendar and thought of ways to fill them, reaching out to other single women to go to dinner and participating in nonprofit events. While those weekly planning sessions are still important—especially when I return home after an extended absence—I have learned to be more strategic.
About every three months, I look ahead to the next season. When do I need to be in Corpus Christi or Dallas? What other commitments do I have? What do I need to schedule—from home maintenance to medical appointments? What are the fun possibilities? Through trial and error, I have learned that I do best when I am home at least three weeks between trips. Week 1 I need to organize. Week 2 I need to take care of business and those necessary appointments. It’s hard to find adequate time for friends. Or for me. When I have three weeks at home, I can spread out the “Lev work,” enjoy my “Ella work” and have more time with people I truly care about.
Everyone is different, and everyone has different responsibilities and different energy levels. My desired minimum of three weeks at home is another friend’s maximum.
In a different way, one of my friends claimed the power of anticipation when she spent weeks recovering from a broken pelvis. She loved opera, and we had tickets for three performances at the Met two months later. That was the carrot she dangled in front of herself, the reward that motivated her to endure months of physical therapy. We went to New York as planned; and with that success, she looked for another carrot. She planned a trip to the Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming, where she and her husband once hiked. When her PT ended, she scheduled regular workouts with a personal trainer. Seven months after her fall, she went on three hikes in the mountains. With determination, discipline and her mind fixed firmly on her goals, she added a trip to the Alps the next year. The anticipation of and preparation for those annual hiking trips became strong, positive motivators for her to stay fit.
But what about happy memories?
My attorney advised me, “Respect the past; embrace the present; [and borrowing a word from Disney] imangineer the future.” As much as I loved my life as Lev’s wife, I tried not to linger on my memories. Like C.S. Lewis, I found that happiness comes from a combination of both memory and anticipation.
A recent article in The New York Times—Take a Walk Down Memory Lane. It Can Be Healthy—described the value of nostalgia. I was amused to read that nostalgia was viewed as a neurological disorder until 2006, when a new study finally figured out that nostalgia is a positive emotion. “It’s about yourself and those close to you; big moments in your life or memorable settings. Experts have found that people turn to nostalgia when they are trying to avoid something unpleasant or feeling lonely, to counteract their social anxieties.”
While nostalgia can make us cry when we remember a happier past, I have nostalgic moments that flood me with warm, fuzzy feelings. The power of memory helps me anticipate my return to places where I experienced joy in the past.
Fortunately, most widows today do not feel pressure from family and friends to live in some permanent state of half-mourning, wearing gray and lavender and sadly dwelling on their memories. However, some never seem to move from that period of grief and loss. They live with their memories rather in joyful anticipation of all that life still has to offer. They remain in a lavender world of half-mourning, or as a friend says, “They stay at the pity party. ”
It’s not uncommon for older widows to feel like their life is over when they lose their spouse. I remind my friends, “We are lucky. We have financial security, our minds and bodies are reasonably intact and we have wonderful friends and family.” Not every widow is so fortunate, and for those who have serious health issues and who have lost their independence due to health or finances, the future is not so inviting.
When a loved one lingers at the pity party
My mother was one of those who sank into chronic depression in widowhood. After Daddy’s death, I noticed that giving her something good to anticipate was the surest way to lift her spirits. Whether it was simply looking forward to going out to dinner with the family or a major occasion, she cheered up at the very thought of what was coming. She reminded me of a child waiting for Santa Claus.
When I planned my trip back to Arkansas last month, I worried about staying with a family friend who was widowed three years ago. She has been badly crippled by arthritis for years, and on previous visits her husband cooked our meals and performed most of the household chores. Her daughter assured me that her mother wanted me to stay with her. What she didn’t tell me was that her mother had been in acute, chronic pain since January and had hardly left the house. But she wanted her to have the anticipation of my visit, so she made all the preparations. That evening she and her husband took us out to dinner, a major outing for my friend.
Good memories are a huge comfort, but anticipation motivates us more.
When the recent Times story triggered my desire to write about anticipation and memory as key ingredients of joy, I scrolled back through two years of blogs to see what I had written previously. To my surprise, I discovered I have never blogged explicitly about the relationship of memory and anticipation, though it’s a regular part of my conversation about reclaiming joy, and I devote an entire chapter to anticipation in my book. I have written several blogs about anticipation, mainly as an encouragement to practice hospitality. Below are links to them:
Portions of this blog have been adapted from my forthcoming book, Reclaiming Joy: A Primer for Widows—anticipated publication fall 2018.
 Lewis, C.S. Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1955. 25 (iBook).
 Stone, Randall and Dan Clay, “6 Tips for Designing Happiness.” https://www.fastcodesign.com/3047190/6-tips-for-designing-happiness (cited 19 Feb. 2017).