What will your 2020 yearbook look like? I suspect it might be a pretty thin volume! There will little to record and precious little to be joyful about. Yet joy is what we need in our lives at the moment.
I want to be clear, joy is not the same as happiness. Happiness are the pleasurable feeling we get when life is going well. Joy, on the other hand, has a mysterious capacity to be felt alongside sorrow and even ― sometimes, most especially ― in the midst of suffering. This is because joy is what we feel deep in our bones when we realize and feel connected to others ― and to what is genuinely good, beautiful and meaningful ― which is possible even in pain. Whereas happiness is generally the effect of evaluating our circumstances and being satisfied with our lives, joy does not depend on good circumstances.
Joy in times of difficulty can act as illumination in the darkness of our present circumstances. My father died very suddenly in hospital, sadly we were too late to be with him but after we had been to say our farewells the family left the hospital at around 3:00am. It was a very clear August night and I was struck at the number of stars we could see and despite the grief of loss for a moment I felt my father(‘)s reassuring presence.
Nel Noddings, Stanford Professor of Child Education, describes joy as a feeling that “accompanies a realisation of our relatedness.” What Noddings meant by relatedness was the special feeling we get from caring about other people.
Joy is also the feeling that can arise from sensing kinship with others, experiencing harmony between what we are doing and our values, or seeing the significance in an action, a place, a conversation or even an inanimate object.
We cannot put joy on our to-do lists; it does not work that way. But there are ways we can prepare ourselves for joy. There are “gateways” to joy that help us to become more open to it. One of these gateways is gratitude.
Gratitude involves bringing to mind the good that is in the world, which makes rejoicing possible. The feeling that follows contemplating nature or art that we find inspiring is often joy, as these are experiences that help people feel connected to something beyond themselves, whether to the natural world or to others’ feelings or experiences. Since “hope,” as theologian Jürgen Moltmann has said, is “the anticipation of joy,” writing out our hopes helps us to expect joy.
The commentator Angela Gorell identifies multiple kinds of joy that can be expressed even in today’s troubled times.
Retrospective joy comes in vividly recalling a previous experience of unspeakable joy. For example, we can imagine in our minds an occasion when we helped someone else, or someone unexpectedly helped us, a time we felt deeply loved. We can close our eyes and meditate on the memory, even walk through the details with someone else or in a journal and, often, experience that joy again, sometimes even more acutely.
Resurrection joy is the feeling that follows when things that are broken getting repaired, things that we thought were dead coming back to life. This kind of joy can be found in apologizing to someone we have hurt, or the feeling that follows recommitting ourselves to sobriety, a marriage or a dream we feel called to.
Futuristic joy comes from rejoicing that we will again glimpse meaning, beauty or goodness, and seemingly against all odds feel that they are connected to our very life. This type of joy can be found, for example, through singing in a religious service, gathering at a protest demanding change or imagining a hope we have being realized.
In the midst of a year in which it is not difficult to stumble onto suffering, the good news is that we can also stumble onto joy. There is no imprisoned mind, heartbreaking time or deafening silence that joy cannot break through.
Joy can always find you.
God bless and stay safe,