I’m a little fascinated around this time of year with the fact that we seem to be drowning in joy. It’s on coffee cups and doughnut boxes. You can buy the word “joy” as a knickknack. We sing of tidings of comfort and joy. And if you’re a Christian actually celebrating the Incarnation of God — there’s some real overwhelming joy for you.
But what is joy? What is joy at a time when people seem to opt more for anger and despair? When joy seems illusive or impossible to others? And how does joy work when you get grim news?
Sister Wendy Beckett, the art historian contemplative who just died, known best for her BBC series on art, wrote this in her book In the Midst of Chaos, Peace:
Most people can manage to be cheerful enough, but this, however admirable, has nothing to do with joy. Joy is a liberating power, an absolute gift. And though it is not won or deserved, it is often the resource which transforms our times of despair and horror. Joy is the victory over our struggles.
Mother Teresa, who touched human suffering daily, said: “Joy is Prayer. . . . Joy is Love. . . . Joy is a net of Love by which we can catch souls.”
“Our neighbors are now experiencing the singular joy of foster parenting,” Mike Aquilina, the author of many books on Church history, including the new Villains of the Early Church, tells me.
It’s demanding. They look exhausted a lot of the time. But they radiate joy. Where do I find it? Like my father before me, I find it in babies and toddlers — my kids, back in the day, but my nieces and nephews before that, and now my grandkids. When they look for me, when they ask for me, when they abandon themselves to me and fall asleep on me. On Christmas, this year my best present was my younger grandson sleeping on my shoulder for two full hours. This, I think, is why we associate joy with Christmas. This is why the word looms large in our decorations. A baby calls us out of ourselves, makes us forget ourselves. We lose ourselves in service of the divine Baby.
Father Chad Gion, who is the pastor of Indian mission churches in North Dakota, is quick to point out that “joy is in no way a disassociation from the pain of life, but a profound faith in and appreciation for the fundamental goodness of life even as all hell is breaking loose.”
Those who live in joy are incredibly powerful in their ability to win the hearts of others. We all know deep down we are made for joy. We ache for joy like the empty stomach aches for food. In its absence, we don’t simply stop hungering for joy, we slip into a broken-hearted cynicism. Some part of us dies when our belief in the possibility of joy dies. So, when someone manifests this otherworldly joy in a weary, jaded world, they are an object of fascination, if not hope, to others.
Around Christmastime one year, Pope Benedict XVI addressed joy and where it comes from:
The crucial [factor] is . . . based on faith: I am wanted; I have a task in history; I am accepted, I am loved. . . . Man can only accept himself if he is accepted by another. He needs the other’s presence, saying to him, with more than words: It is good that you exist. Only from the You can the I come into itself. Only if it is accepted, can it accept itself. Those who are unloved cannot even love themselves. This sense of being accepted comes in the first instance from other human beings. But all human acceptance is fragile. Ultimately, we need a sense of being accepted unconditionally.
Sohrab Ahmari, author of the upcoming spiritual memoir From Fire, by Water, observes:
When I was younger, I sought joy in all the wrong places and things. But I dare say that in the last few years, especially since being received into the Catholic Church in 2016, I’ve lived a truly joyful life. I still couldn’t define joy if I tried, but I can tell you that I find it in doing my work well, in orderly fashion and offered up to God; in my little boy, his laughter, how he exclaims “Baba!” when I get home after a long day; and in the liturgy of the Church, that foretaste of heaven. And yes, I do experience these joys every day or nearly every day.
When people stop believing in God in a real way, you find some of what is so prevalent right now: a crisis of identity. Loneliness. These things always exist, but they become cultural crises when we have a spiritual one.
Kelly Rosati, the mother of teens she and her husband adopted out of foster care, dealing daily with the residual effects of trauma and the realities of mental illness, says that “after ten straight years of life full of circumstances that are most parents’ worst nightmare (multiple kids with life-threatening chronic illness, full of many life-and-death close calls), I decided I wasn’t going to make it in this life if my joy was held captive to life’s circumstances.” She knew that meant an interior strength that only God could provide.
Rosati, who is also an author and adoption advocate and consultant on these and other family issues, shares her “joy stealers”: “too much social media, going for the quick ‘pick up my spirits’ hit of something I know is unhealthy for me, and too much noise and making my joy contingent on others’ actions, feelings, and thoughts.”
“I think the best way to spread joy is to be filled to the brim with God’s love so that I can simply be present and available for the people God puts in our paths: family, friends, colleagues, acquaintances — NOT seeking to get it from others. That’s a surefire way to misery.”
Another friend of mine who knows more than her fair share of suffering and challenge notes: “We must strive to overcome our selfishness, mend our ways, reconcile with those we have hurt, and rediscover the authentic path to joy.”
The good news is that “joy” doesn’t disappear when Dunkin’ Donuts changes its coffee cups in January. But it is a challenge to rise to. And an urgent one.
This column is based on one available through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association.