It always starts with children’s laughter and joyous shouts.

Their laughter can turn pain to joy. Their excitement can bring new hope. Their infectious smiles can make me feel that I can once again join them in their innocent love of life.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

I’m at a Chick-fil-A and there are lots children here for a Thursday night. I’m watching families. Parents and young kids. There are a couple of small groups that seems to be just mothers and children. There’s a father who’s come to eat alone and visit with his son who works here at the same time.

I’m at a table near the back and it seems as though every child has to come by here with a mom or dad on the way to a restroom, either skipping along on foot or riding in a parent’s arms. It’s loud and it’s busy. But something about it all makes my heart happy.

When I listen to the children, their little brains always seem drawn to the same things. They love the pictures of cows on the walls. They’re absolutely delighted and they treat the cows as though they were real.

There’s the little blond boy in his father’s arms who keeps pointing to the cows and mooing. He giggles and seems certain they’re going to moo back.

Here come three excited kids — a boy and two girls — coming back from the play place up front to tell their mom about what they’ve been doing. They haven’t done anything special — at least not by anybody else’s standards — but they’re joyful just to share what they’re doing. From listening to their tones, you would think something special had been going on. It’s just simple play — but their response is one of pure exuberance.

Different parents react in very different ways.

There’s a father two tables down from me who seems bored with the whole meal and with his family. The mother and the kids talk, but he’s mentally checked out. His mind is somewhere else.

There are two happy mothers who seem attentive to their children and even seem eager to listen to their stories. Those mothers seem as happy as their kids do.

On the way to the restroom, there’s the tiny boy with black eyes and curly hair who’s crying in his mother’s arms and trying to talk.

“I couldn’t wait and I tried,” he wails.

As the path to the women’s restroom backs up momentarily, there’s the mother holding her sleepy little girl with blonde hair in a ponytail. The girl has her head hanging over her mother’s shoulder and the woman’s back is to me. As they stand waiting, the little girl looks down at me. She smiles happily and reaches out her tiny hand, extending her fingers in a wave for a stranger who simply smiled at her.

Not all of the children are immediately happy, but they all seem content. They all seem to be full of life and the sort of honest spirits that come from not having been wounded by disappointments and failures.

The children seem joyful just to be themselves.

And their joy and innocence change me. They take a tired and hurt and wounded heart and make it feel different. They make me feel softer and warmer and more alive.

The joy of a child can heal. A lot of people don’t seem to know that. They treat children as though they’re a bother. Some act as if they’re like furniture to ignore — required trappings of the adult life to be tolerated for 18 or 20 years and then shuffled off to the “real world.”

But what if their joy is the real world? What if the world we inhabit — the one we treat as so important — is actually the false world? What if we lived more like them? Could we regain some of that lost innocence and pure joy by simplifying our lives and purifying our relationships.

I can’t prove it, but I suspect so.

Nothing about what I’m seeing around me will change my life. The little girl’s smile and wave won’t give me the love and understanding I crave. The joy of play I see in others won’t change what I have to do right now to earn a living. I know that.

But something about watching them — and feeling the infectious love in their spirits — changes me and heals something in me. At least a little. At least for a moment.

And when I feel their joy — when I feel their innocence — that feeling they give me is enough to let me feel hope once more. It gives me hope that maybe I can share their loving and happy world. It gives me hope again that I can help my own children down the path one day to becoming mature adults who never have to give up their joy and innocence.

Even though none of that fixes everything for me, at this moment, it’s a start. And that’s enough. That’s a great gift from these children, even though they’ll never know it.