My heart is pounding telling this story. I have told it a million times. There is something powerful about reminding people that you can rise from darkness and make something beautiful.

This is my reminder: You can find joy anywhere if you choose to look.

When I was a freshman in high school I certainly didn’t know this. I had a hard time–quite possibly for the first time in my life–while transitioning from eighth to ninth grade. From an outside point of view, it made no sense because I was blessed with the nicest house, a handsome dog, the most supportive family, and tons of friends. But despite all the surrounding joy, I found myself in the clutches of a sad time. That was the first thing I learned—you can have everything it takes to be happy, and still not be happy. It doesn’t mean you are broken, it just means it is time to grow into something better.

This sadness originated after I had my first “friend drama” freshman year, where I suddenly found myself navigating high school without my childhood BFF. Although it sounds silly, I was brokenhearted. I wasn’t able to shake it, and soon found that I allowed this sadness to linger too long and seep into other aspects of my life. Instead of bouncing back to the fun loving kid I had always been, I gave myself permission to stay sad. It was easier to sit in an emotion than to do the work to feel better. As a stubborn teen, I convinced myself that I didn’t need fixing anyway.

Although I was never on the brink of disaster, I was sad. And there is nothing worse than feeling sad. I felt guilty that I couldn’t just flip a switch and feel better, which made me feel even worse.

My mom had been my greatest friend during all of this. One day, after seeing me struggle for too long, she placed a huge glass bowl on my desk filled with quotes that she had collected and cut into strips. She instructed me to pick one from it every morning.

I said no.

As both a teenager and someone who had always been self sufficient, I found it horrifying to accept any form of help. I was embarrassed because I didn’t want anyone to think that I couldn’t handle things myself.

But after a few weeks more of feeling exceptionally sorry for myself, I decided to pick one quote from my jar. Why not, right? I picked a strip of paper from the slightly dusty and unused bowl, not thinking much of it. But the words that I read changed my life. The quote immediately spoke to me, and for the first time in a long time, my perspective was shifted.

“In the depth of the winter, I finally realized that within me there lay an invincible summer”—Albert Camus

This simple sentence caused a great change that day. It was as if someone had turned the lights on and reminded me of something I had always known, but buried somewhere deep inside me. So the next day, I picked another. Again, the words I read were exactly what I needed to hear. I figured there must be something to this, and truly believed every quote I picked was what I was meant to read at that specific time. For the next year I picked a quote each morning, firmly believing there was a reason behind the timing of each message. If I didn’t understand it immediately, I carried the slip of paper around with me throughout the day until I could apply the lesson to some part of my life. Through this process, I became wiser, gentler, more understanding, and most importantly more joyful. These slips of paper helped me to reconnect with myself, and I soon found myself growing into an even better version of me than ever before.

For the next year, I taped my quotes all across my bedroom walls, carried them in my pockets, and stuck my favorite ones in the back of my phone case. Still, I didn’t tell any of my friends what I was doing. I was reluctant to let people in, because I was scared of their reactions.

But one day when I was at school, someone opened my phone case to see what was tucked behind it, and to my horror hundreds of my little slips of quotes floated to the floor. Everyone around me froze, and I held my breath. However, I was surprised to watch people’s reactions be not those of confusion, but of genuine curiosity and excitement. I shared my story for the first time that day, and was received with such enthusiasm that kids at school started asking for their own quotes too. I began to bring quotes and pass them out in the hallways to friends and even strangers.

Soon people began stopping me, telling me that they were having a hard time as well. Dozens of kids asked if they could get jars of their own. I was shocked to see that even those who appeared to have it all were secretly hurting in their own way too. I realized then how wildly absurd it is to be ashamed to show people how you feel. Everyone goes through hard times, and I was reminded of the beauty that comes along with openness. By admitting a weakness, I was able to gently allow others to do the same.

I reported to my mother what had been going on at school, and that other people wanted jars of their own. We put together small plastic jars filled with my favorite quotes on yellow paper—enough to pick one every day for a month. We decided upon the name “Meredith’s Jars of Joy,” in honor of my grandma, and created an email address for people to contact us. We started selling the jars from our home and a small store in town.

A few weeks passed, and our inbox was suddenly flooded by requests from complete strangers. We decided to donate all of our proceeds to Family Promise, an organization that provides housing to homeless families. I was featured on the cover of their national newsletter, and from this our publicity and demand grew even more. We created a website, and began to mail our jars all across the country. By the end of the first year, we had sold roughly two thousand jars. Over the course of this time, we were stocked in seven stores branching into Pennsylvania, and sold out on almost every occasion. I started getting invited to speak at events and share my story more and more.

During all this excitement, I received hundreds of personalized letters and messages thanking my mom and I for helping spread joy. People wrote about suicides that were prevented, families that found comfort during grieving, and simply motivation and inspiration that were generated by the jars. It is humbling for me to see that because I was able to overcome my own situation—one that, at the time, I would have traded for anything else in the world—other people are able to find joy as well.

Almost three years ago I sent out that very first jar, and since then my life has changed dramatically. I have learned that, much like adventures, you can’t simply wait for happiness to arrive at your doorstep. You need to plunge head first into the world with enthusiasm and seek your joy. That is the secret—it’s not about waiting for joy to find you. It’s choosing to find it for yourself.

Through my daily quotes, I reminded myself of what has been true all along: there are beautiful things everywhere. Do you see them?

-Middlebury College, ’19