Thirteen years ago, I left my first teaching position at one seminary in order to start teaching at another. A short time after my move, the academic dean at the first school called to tell me, “I so miss hearing your laughter in the building!” Recently, I started to miss my own laughter or at least the joy that occasioned it. Apparently so did my six-year-old daughter, Eleanor. “Are you stressed today, Mom? You’re not very silly, Mom,” she would say.
We are fast approaching the one-year mark of the pandemic in the United States. The losses keep piling up. While glimpses of hope abound, so do causes for concern. How do we find joy in these times when we feel weary, lonely, worried, and grieved?
Even more basic is the question, What is joy? A number of psychologists, philosophers, and theologians took up this question in 2014 as part of Yale Divinity School’s consultations on joy. I would summarize and add to their reflections in this way:
Joy is a positive-feeling state that brings us surprise and delight as one of our cherished values or goals is fulfilled in a particular moment of time. Time often stands still, so to speak, when we feel joy. Sometimes joy has the quality of surprise. It is durable and persists in the midst of pain and perplexity. It is something we cultivate and choose, on the one hand, and something we receive as a gift, on the other.
Mary Oliver captures beautifully the qualities of surprise and delight related to our experience of joy in her poem, “Don’t Hesitate:”
If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy,
don’t hesitate. Give in to it. There are plenty
of lives and whole towns destroyed or about
to be. We are not wise, and not very often
kind. And much can never be redeemed.
Still, life has some possibility left. Perhaps this
is its way of fighting back, that sometimes
something happens better than all the riches
or power in the world. It could be anything,
but very likely you notice it in the instant
when love begins. Anyway, that’s often the
case. Anyway, whatever it is, don’t be afraid
of its plenty. Joy is not made to be a crumb.
Joy, therefore, is not made to be horded. It is meant to be shared. It overflows. It is contagious. When we are joyful, we need others to hear, receive, and participate in it. We also need to participate in and contribute to others’ joy. Choosing to find joy in others’ happiness and flourishing increases personal and communal wellbeing. It dissolves resentment and envy.
In addition, we experience joy when we are satisfied and content with our own lives. When we reflect on pivotal moments or the overall contour of our lives and can say, “Yes. This is good. Not perfect. Not without some regrets. But good. I would choose it again, in some fundamentally congruent form.” From an ethical perspective, this joyful satisfaction comes from living a life that contributes to the wellbeing and flourishing of other people and the natural world.
What elicits joy? Research shows that particular experiences frequently give rise to joy in our lives. For example, we feel joy when something we’ve been anticipating or longing for comes to pass. Or when we receive something good in unexpected excess. Last week, a dear friend and former pastoral colleague shared with me the outpouring of affirmation she received in response to her just-completed first book. The rolling, momentum of praise – much of which she did not anticipate – created a groundswell of joy for her, and by extension, for me.
Sometimes we experience joy when we witness something good coming from a horrible situation that has pained us or others. We naturally rejoice when life comes from death, possibility emerges from impossibility, or love is sparked anew. Perhaps it is a reunion or a long-hoped for reconciliation. In all these instances, and others like it, joy is a gift of grace.
Which begs the question, Can we choose joy? Insofar as joy is an action; insofar as it is related to how we interpret our life and our circumstances; insofar as it about turning from resentment and opening ourselves to the possibility of new life and new love, then the answer is “yes.” We may not be able to “will” the elation of joy—I don’t recommend trying—but can we make choices that connect us to the sources of joy.
We can choose joy by reflecting upon and resting in the promises of God, by remembering God’s love for all, or by meditating on shalom, the grand vision of wholeness and wellbeing for all living things, and pray for its fulfillment.
We can choose joy by practicing gratitude. Joy and gratitude are interdependent. When we feel joy, we tend to be thankful. It’s also true that when we practice gratitude regularly, our joy increases.
We can choose to learn joy from those who exemplify it. We can draw near to these beacons of joy. As theologian Willie James Jennings put it, we all need people who can make us laugh when all we want to do is cry. We can learn from people who have managed somehow to hold onto life even when very little makes sense in life.
Yesterday, eighty-five women participated in our online mini-retreat, “Choosing Joy,” the first in our series, “Living Well. Leading Well.” We discussed all the above and more. We felt inspired by listening to the many ways we choose joy daily even in the midst of grief and loss. And we experienced joy in one another’s presence. We hope it’s contagious and that by grace joy overflows to you this day as well.
Choose Joy today with this meditation practice:
Cultivation of Joy: A Meditation by Jack Kornfield
Bring to mind someone you care about, someone it is easy to rejoice for. Picture them and feel the natural joy you have for their well-being, happiness, and success. With each breath, offer them your grateful, heartfelt wishes:
May you be joyful.
May your happiness increase.
May you not be separated from great happiness.
May your good fortune and the causes for your joy and happiness increase.
Sense the sympathetic joy and caring in each phrase. When you feel some degree of natural gratitude for the happiness of this loved one, extend this practice to another person you care about. Recite the same simple phrases that express your heart’s intention.
Then gradually open the meditation to other loved ones and benefactors. After the joy for them grows strong, turn back to include yourself. Let the feelings of joy more fully fill your body and mind. Continue repeating the intentions of joy over and over, through whatever resistances and difficulties arise, until you feel stabilized in joy. Next begin to systematically include the categories of neutral people, then difficult people and even enemies until you extend sympathetic joy to all beings everywhere, young and old, near and far.
Practice dwelling in joy until the deliberate effort of practice drops away and the intentions of joy blend into the natural joy of your own wise heart
*Theresa F. Latini, Ph.D. is the Executive Director of Mount Olivet Conference & Retreat Center and an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA).