IT WAS THE BEST OF DAYS. IT WAS the worst of days. Friday, August 28, 1992. Our tenth anniversary. A week earlier I had called the Delta Bow Valley Hotel to reserve room 1716. The manager asked why in the world I wanted that particular room, so I told him: “Our Irish Setter had a fine litter of pups on that bed, so we’re bringing the Saint Bernard this time.”

Thankfully he laughed.

“Actually,” I said, with a smile in my voice, “we got our marriage off to a great start in that room, and we’d like to return every ten years or so if you’ll let us.” He assured me that he would, and furthermore, there would be a few surprises waiting when we arrived. The first surprise was that the room would now cost  $119, inflated slightly from the $39 we had paid ten years ago. I hung up the phone, then called for tickets to Les Misérables, a famous opera which millions have seen but no one can properly pronounce.

“I need a credit card number,” said the ticket agent.

“How much will it cost?” I asked, pulling a well-worn VISA card from my wallet.

“Seventy dollars.”

I instinctively clutched my billfold. “Um…is that per row?” “That is per seat, sir,” said he, without the slightest trace of humor.

Two hundred and fifty-nine dollars later I had the perfect romantic getaway planned. A whole twenty-four hours to celebrate a love which had begun to blossom fifteen years earlier when a shy blonde from a thousand miles away moved in next door, causing me to claim Galatians 5:14 as my high school motto:

“Love thy neighbor as thyself.”

We dated on and off for five years (off whenever she said so) until one glorious rainy day in August when we tied the knot. Ten years later, we had three wonderful children and a marriage filled with more joy than either of us could have anticipated. But as I put away my VISA card that day, I realized that much of the joy had faded.

Would the weekend help us forget the dark clouds that had begun hovering over us five months earlier?

I wondered.

It is a funny thing to be called a comedian, to see people fall off chairs at your stories and jokes as you stand before them wondering to yourself, When will I join them? When will the laughter return for me? When will the buzzards stop circling and the joy descend?

In March of that year, events had taken place that neither us nor a dozen doctors could explain. Events that had forced us to our knees and sometimes to despair. In my book Making Life Rich Without Any Money (Harvest House), I tell the story of the wintry day when I came home to discover our children alone in the kitchen trying to create their own meal in a stainless steel bowl.

Looking up at me with frightened eyes, our eldest son Stephen asked, “Is Momma gonna die?”

In the living room, Ramona lay unconscious in a pool of blood, an ugly gash zig-zagging down her leg. She had just experienced the first seizure of her life. The first of hundreds to come.

During the long ambulance ride to a nearby city, I wondered what the future held. Until now, my life had been smooth sailing. Pain was something that invaded other people’s lives. I had easy answers to their questions. I could spout clichés with the best of them. But as I looked down on the only girl I’d ever fallen for, I knew my world was about to change. Yesterday Ramona was so full of life, her welcome-home kiss delivered with the sweetest of smiles, her face bright with laughter. Today she lay motionless, her lips a dark blue, her pretty face a pale shade of gray. Holding her motionless hand, I stared out the window, tears streaming down my face.

“Oh God,” I prayed, “please do something.”

But God didn’t seem to hear.

The next few months brought with them an endless procession of doctors, specialists, hospital rooms, and the frustration of living every waking moment with a sword dangling over our heads. Not only was Ramona battling seizures, but a disease which I will tell you about in chapter one had begun to invade her family.

One day I was in my study being interviewed on a national radio program. The host’s question got my attention: “How do we find our funnybone in tough times?” I stammered a little but managed a satisfactory response. When the interview ended, I opened my study door to find Ramona on the living room floor once again.

The seizures worsened. By August we had resigned ourselves to the fact that the only certain thing about our new life was that it would be filled with uncertainty. Anxious days and sleepless nights drained the laughter from our home as I began to welcome a new and unpleasant guest. On the outside I seemed resilient. Strong. Even joyful. But inside bitterness began to blanket our lives like a West Coast rain.

The anniversary weekend was our first weekend alone since March, and I’d been looking forward to it for weeks. Perhaps the rain would lighten up for a few days. Maybe the sun would even shine.

Pulling into the parking lot, we stared up at a huge colorful Les Misérables banner hanging from the theater wall. "We should hang that thing on our house," I told Ramona. "That's how I feel these days. Maybe the play is about us." She laughed. After watching three different film versions and reading most of Victor Hugo's thick classic, I was eager to see the stage adaptation.

I had no idea how hard it would hit me.

And how appropriate it would be for this time in our lives.

Les Misérables is the epic story of Jean Valjean, who is thrown into a French prison for stealing a loaf of bread. Released on parole after nineteen years, Valjean soon learns that his past has condemned him to the life of an outcast. The only one who befriends him is a humble bishop. Yet one night, scarred and hardened by his prison years, Valjean repays the bishop’s kindness by stealing some of his valuable silver. Caught and brought back by the police, Valjean stands before the bishop, his head down, doomed to spend the rest of his days in prison.

“We found a silver plate in this man’s possession,” one officer says. “It is stolen from you, is it not?”

The bishop pauses for a moment. He knows Valjean’s past. He wonders about his future. Then he speaks the most unexpected words: “No. I gave them to him. I’m so glad you came back because he forgot to take the silver candlesticks.”

When the authorities leave, Valjean falls to his knees before the bishop. He is speechless. Tears stream down his face. Overwhelmed by this act of grace, Valjean vows that he will never be the same.

Before long, he becomes a successful factory owner, honored in his new hometown. But one day Inspector Javert, Valjean’s nemesis from his prison days, comes to town. Javert, who is haunted by his own demons, has an old score to settle. And from then on, he hunts down his enemy Valjean, determined to prove him guilty and throw him back into jail. But Valjean stands by his vow. He refuses to retaliate, which confuses and infuriates Javert. In love, Valjean adopts a child and later risks his life for her fiancé. Again and again, throughout the story, he overcomes evil with good, chooses joy over bitterness, and eventually overpowers his enemy Javert with the love of God.

When the final curtain fell, I sat in the theater, moved to tears at this story of grace and redemption. Please understand that I’m not normally a weepy sort of guy. In fact, I had not cried like this since “Old Yeller” died on a Saturday afternoon when I was in fourth grade. But for the first time ever I asked myself a question that would change my life.

Who was I becoming? Valjean or Javert?

That night in our $119 hotel room, we munched chocolate-covered strawberries (compliments of the hotel), discussed the lead characters in the play, and asked ourselves: What separates those who soar from those who sink? What separates those who resign from those who rejoice?

For seven years I have sought the answer to that question.

During that time, I began to reflect on people I know and stories I’ve heard. On eternal truths that would help shape me on my journey to joy. The book you are holding chronicles my own story, but better still, the stories of dozens of people, many who are treading deeper water than I, who have discovered that laughing matters, that joy can be found no matter what. As I researched and wrote, it began to dawn on me that these people demonstrate five vital characteristics that are absolutely essential to living life with joy. If the unexpected has rocked your world, I believe these characteristics will bring back the laughter. And help you walk through life as Valjean did.

I am not over-exaggerating when I say that these five characteristics have changed my life forever. They have brought me joy, peace, and hope.

I can’t wait to tell you what they are.

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