Godtalk: Surprised by Joy


Smiling Man

The Gospels often speak of joy. Yet few things are so misunderstood: which means we are often left chasing the wrong things in life. Too often we confuse joy with good cheer or with a certain rallying of the spirit that we try to crank up when we go to a party or let off steam. 

We tend to think of joy as quite separate from the ordinary time in our lives, when duty, work, tiredness, worries, and pressures of all kinds keep us from enjoying life, we suppose, and from being as cheerful and pleasant as we would like.

We think of ordinary times in our lives as keeping us from joy - the grind, the routine, the rat-race, the working-week -  so we look forward to special times, weekends, nights out, vacations, celebrations, and parties where we can break the routine, enjoy ourselves, and experience joy.

But is this joy? It can be, though often it isn't. The cheeriness that we enter into at parties is often little more than a desperate effort to keep our depressions at bay, a form of denial. That's why the good cheer dissolves so quickly when we go home; and why three days after returning from vacation, we can be just as tired as before.

Joy can never be induced or made to happen. It's something that has to find us precisely within our ordinary, duty-bound, full of worries, and pressured lives. We experience joy in that moment when, for no apparent reason, we suddenly become aware of our body, and mind, soul, history, place within a family network of friends, and we just feel: "It's good to be alive!"

That's joy. It has to surprise us. We can't find joy, it has to find us. We can go to a party and say, ‘Tonight I'm going to have a good time.’ Parties and letting off steam certainly have their place. We might even find good cheer at a party or find a good distraction, and these can be needed therapy and a good respite from hard work: but neither of these is joy.

Joy is always the by-product of something else. As the Prayer of St Francis puts it, we can never attain joy, consolation, peace, forgiveness, love, and understanding by actively pursuing them. We attain them by giving them out.

That's the paradox at the heart of all spirituality and one of the great truths within the universe itself: the air that we breathe out is the air we will eventually breathe in. Joy will come to us if we set about actively trying to create it for others.

If I go about my life demanding, unconsciously, that others carry me, rather than seeking to carry them; feeding off of others rather than trying to feed them; creating disorder rather than being a principle of peace; demanding to be admired rather than admiring, and demanding that others meet my needs rather than trying to meet theirs, joy will never find me, no matter how hard I party or try to crank up good cheer:  I'm breathing the wrong air into the universe. ‘The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting: it’s been found difficult and left largely untried.’  Chesterton     

Peter Knott SJ