By Angela Gorrell, George W. Truett Theological Seminary at Baylor University
2020 was not an unforgettable year – for many people it was even a real nightmare. The pandemic, along with political and social unrest, has brought fear, heartbreak, righteous anger and discord to many.
In the midst of this suffering, people need some joy.
As a scholar who has studied the role of joy in daily life, I believe joy is an incredibly powerful companion during suffering.
Speaking at funerals, teaching joy
For me this is more than just academic work. In late 2016, less than a year after I was hired to be on a team researching joy at Yale University, three of my family members died unexpectedly within four weeks: my cousin Dustin’s husband at age 30 Suicide, my sister Mason’s son in sudden cardiac arrest at 22, and my father David at 70 after years of opioid use.
While researching joy, I spoke at funerals. Sometimes even reading about joy felt so absurd that I almost swore I was anything but joyful.
In 2020, many people can relate to it.
I want to make it clear: joy is not the same as happiness. Happiness is usually the pleasant feeling we get when we feel like life is going well.
Joy, on the other hand, has a mysterious ability to sense alongside sadness and even – sometimes, especially – in the midst of suffering. This is because joy is what we feel deep within our bones when we recognize and feel connected to others – and to what is really good, beautiful, and meaningful – which is possible even under pain. While happiness in general is the effect of the evaluation of our circumstances and satisfaction with our lives, happiness does not depend on good circumstances.
A few days after my cousin’s husband died, a small group of family members and I were shopping for funeral items when the group decided to go to the place where Dustin had died of suicide. It was getting dark and the sun was almost down. As we looked at the landscape, we suddenly noticed a star above the trees. We stood in a row, looking across the sky and one of us asked if there were any other stars to be seen. There was none. We found that only this one extraordinarily bright star was in the sky.
As we stared at the star, we felt like Dustin had met us there, that he had allowed that single star to be seen in the sky so we could know he was okay. It wasn’t the kind of relief we wanted for him. But for a few minutes we let the tragedy of what had just happened in this room two days earlier hang in the background and instead focused on the star. We were filled with a kind of transformative, silent joy. And we all surrendered to this moment.
As scholar Adam Potkay noted in his 2007 book The Story of Joy, “joy is an enlightenment,” the ability to see beyond something else.
Similarly, Nel Noddings, Stanford professor and author of the 2013 book Caring, describes joy as a feeling that “comes with realizing our kinship”. What nod meant by kinship was the special feeling we get when we care about other people or ideas.
Joy is also the feeling that can arise from feeling kinship with others, experiencing harmony between what we do and our values, or realizing the meaning of an action, place, conversation, or even an inanimate object.
When I teach joy, I use an example to explain it to my family. Now when my sister looks at a mason jar – whether in a hand filled with tea or full of flowers on a friend’s coffee table – it reminds her of her son Mason. It’s not just an object that she sees, but a relationship steeped in beauty, goodness, and meaning. It gives her a feeling that can only be described as joy.
We can’t put joy on our to-do lists; it doesn’t work that way. But there are ways we can prepare for joy. There are “gates” to joy that help us become more open to it.
Gratitude means remembering the good in the world that makes joy possible. The feeling that follows when we think about nature or art that inspires us is often joy as these are experiences that help people feel connected to something that is beyond themselves, be it natural World or with the feelings or experiences of others. Since “hope”, as the theologian Jürgen Moltmann said, is “anticipation of joy”, writing down our hopes helps us to expect joy.
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Three types of joy
In my book “The Gravity of Joy” I identify several types of joy that can be expressed even in today’s difficult times.
The retrospective joy is vividly reminiscent of a previous experience of unspeakable joy. For example, we can imagine in our mind an opportunity when we helped someone else or someone unexpectedly helped us, a time when we felt deeply loved … the moment we first met our child saw. We can close our eyes and meditate on the memory, even go through the details with someone else or in a journal, and relive that joy often, sometimes even more acutely.
There is also a type of joy that is redeeming and rejuvenating – the joy of resurrection. It’s the feeling that follows things that are broken and being fixed, things that we thought were dead and come back to life. This kind of joy can consist of apologizing to someone we have hurt or feeling like we are back to sobriety, a marriage, or a dream we feel called to be.
Futuristic joy arises from the joy that we see meaning, beauty or goodness again and seem to have the feeling of being connected to our life against all odds. This type of joy can be found, for example, by singing in a church service, gathering at a protest calling for change, or imagining a hope that we have realized.
In the middle of a year when suffering isn’t hard to stumble upon, the good news is that we can stumble upon joy too. There is no imprisoned mind, heartbreaking time, or deafening silence that joy cannot break through.
Joy can always find you.
Angela Gorrell, Assistant Professor of Practical Theology, George W. Truett Theological Seminary at Baylor University
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