I don’t know about you, but I always feel somewhat deflated in the first couple of months of a new year. Maybe it’s the leaving of the family after wonderful Christmas and New Year celebrations, or the continued short days of damp grey weather and long dark nights, or the sense of here-we-go-again. What I need is a bit of joy in my life!
In my formative years in church, I was often reminded that, ‘Happiness is a shallow thing, but joy is deep.’ I remember thinking that it must be very deep indeed because I wasn’t quite sure how it differed from happiness!
Happiness is a transient emotion founded on transient things such as the state of our health and wealth – happiness tends to be achieved externally, while joy is something achieved internally. Joy endures hardship and trials and connects with meaning and purpose. A person pursues happiness but chooses joy. A sense of this choice is glimpsed when Jesus said, on the last night of his life, ‘I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.’ Jesus’ choices enabled him to talk of joy on what must have been one of the most demanding nights of his life!
So what makes it hard for some of us to feel joy? Theologian Lewis Smedes suggests three things. First, ‘the lust for virtue’ – the belief that we’re simply not good enough to deserve joy. Our lives are an endless introspection of the ways we could improve – we feel constant failures. Perhaps this is one of the greatest curses of Social Media.
The next joy-robber is ‘total accountability’. It’s the idea that somehow, we are personally responsible for the ills of the whole world – hunger, pain, global warming, the actions of our adult children. The more sensitive we are, the heavier the guilt that weighs us down. There’s a story of how Pope John XXIII was hounded by an overanxious cardinal to do something about the state of the world. He put an arm around the man and said that he’d felt the same pressure but had been helped by an angel who visited him at night and said, ‘Hey, Johnny boy. Don’t take yourself so seriously!’
Third, there is ‘problem catastrophising’. Every pain we have means that we’re probably dying; our children haven’t just misbehaved – we’ve totally failed as parents.
So to feel a little more joy in the coming weeks I’m going to try to lay down my lust for virtue while still trying to live a holy life. I’m going to let go of total accountability will still trying to be compassionate. And I’m going to try to bring some perspective into my life that will keep me from the wildest of assumptions.
A dear Franciscan Friar friend of mine used to talk about joy in another, simpler, way – Jesus first, Others second, Yourself last.
Here’s to feeling a little more joyful!
Yours in Christ,