Sunday, July 19, 2009

Restore to Me the Joy

Most people think the opposite of joy is sadness. I don’t think so. Joy and sadness can coexist—do coexist. One of the names for the feeling of mixed joy and sadness often used in the Orthodox Tradition is “bright sadness.” It is one of those feelings, or I might better say it is one of those experiences, for which words seem completely inadequate; so I will not try to explain it. What I will try to do is talk a little bit about joy.

Happiness is the opposite of sadness, but the opposite of joy is cynicism. Joy is a way of seeing and knowing and being. Joy sees the ray of light in a dark room, whereas cynicism sees only the darkness. Certainly there is much more darkness than light in the world, so cynics often pride themselves in being realists. In fact, there is a kind of noble cynic (I am thinking here of Dostoyevsky’s character, Ivan Karamazov) who refuses to find any joy, any light or any goodness so long as there remains even a little darkness in the universe.

Such noble cynicism, I think, comes from a rather Sunday-school like notion of God and the universe. This Sunday-school God is all powerful so He can do “anything He wants.” The logic, therefore, goes something like this. If God can do anything He wants, and since there is evil in the world, the evil is God’s fault, since God allows it. Such an understanding of God and the universe produces cynicism. Sometimes this cynicism is crass, as one often hears in political comedy or in the base humor of many stand-up comics; sometimes it is paranoid, imagining conspiracies everywhere—the ubiquitous “they” who are manipulating “the system”; sometimes it is quite noble, as the cynicism of Ivan mentioned above. Unfortunately, this last group of cynics is the most dangerous. The foul-mouthed and the paranoid cynics are pretty easy to dismiss, but the noble, clear-thinking and in the end ruthless cynics are the ones you have to watch out for. Mao, Pol Pot, and Lenin are a few names that quickly come to mind.

The problem with cynicism, even when it is not ruthless, is that nothing is ever good enough. The cynic creates an inner ideal that in no way conforms to reality—even if reality were perfect. What I mean is that the cynic’s ideal is a world without consequences. In the cynic’s ideal world, what goes up only comes down if he or she wants it to come down. He or she plants corn and potatoes grow; he or she drinks soda all day long and doesn’t get fat; he or she sleeps around yet experiences the intimacy of a couple married for twenty years. The ideal just doesn’t conform to reality. What leads to ruthlessness is the cynic’s focus outside him/herself. The cynic reasons, since no one I see lives up to my ideal, I don’t have to either; and the atrocity-justifying ringer, if one has the demonic courage to go this far, is the thought that my compromise in my ideals is only to make the world better [better conform to my ideal].

The joyful person, on the other hand, looks inside him or herself and sees all too clearly the reason why the world is such a mess. The joyful person takes the first three chapters of Genesis literally: not as science or history, but as the story of the fall: my fall and the fall of the universe. The Garden of Eden is in my heart. I am Adam, I am Eve, I reach out and appropriate for myself what God has not given me. I listen to the seducing voice of the serpent—knowing full well that he is lying—and let myself be seduced to the point that I cannot control my impulse to shop or eat or drink or smoke or fornicate or speak sharp words (and the list goes on and on). The joyful person knows why the world is a mess, and God has nothing to do with it except that He has made a way out of the mess.

And herein is the source of joy. The joyful person is not unaware of the pain and injustice in the world. In fact, I argue that the joyful person sees the pain and injustice more clearly than anyone else, for he or she imposes no illusionary ideal on the world. However, the joyful person also sees the way out: the way of the cross, the Light that shines in the darkness.

It’s a funny thing about joy, it grows. The more light one sees in the darkness, the more joy one has. The more joy one has, the more light one sees. And if we will take the New Testament seriously, the more light one sees, the more one actually becomes light.


Anonymous said...

Dear Fr. Michael,
I love the spiritual openness of your reflections, not only this one but others. I hereby strongly encourage you to continue writing, assured that I and others find spiritual profit in them.
Recently I have been wondering if the "antidote" to the death that I know will one day come upon me is the life of God in my heart. Any thoughts about whether this is true?

Donna Farley said...

Hello Fr. Michael!

Thank you so much for showing that joy is not a mere emotion, but a stance from which we view and experience life.....our parish had this 'bright sadness' this week as we had a funeral for one of our members. The funeral home people said it was 'the best funeral they had ever seen'!

"The cynic's ideal is a life without consequences..." Shudder.

I find this is quite apparent in the related topic of sarcasm and snark, which I discussed on my blog a while ago. Practitioners of this risky art sling their zingers at any available target, but when the victims cry out, say 'Can't you take a joke?'

I don't think I am a Pollyanna at all, but I have come to think that constant fixation on the negative is just as unreal as viewing the world through rose-coloured glasses. Joy is as you describe it, the clear vision that there is 'a way out'. It makes me think of Puddleglum in the underground kingdom, who chooses to believe in Narnia despite the witch's hypnotic spell; and to live like a Narnian even if his mind and sense persuade him there isn't any Narnia.

Sorry for the rambling is already getting warm today and my brain is beginning to melt!

Fr. Michael said...

Andy, I think you are right. St. Theophan the Recluse is famous for encouraging us to kindle the Divine Spark that is already in our hearts. That is the Life of God in us that cannot die.

Jared Korb said...

I'm reading "Kindling of the Divine Spark" right now. It's an amazingly encouraging book; definitely recommend it. Thank you Father for the frequent posts. I read them!

Bev. Cooke said...

Wonderful blog - and Donna's comment about Puddleglum is extra appropriate, since Puddleglum, while not a cynic, was one of those terminally depressive people. The kind who always see rain in the light cloud cover, who see missing the last bus even though there's still an hour to wait. But when the crunch comes, he doesn't give in to the negative, but clings to what he knows is fact - Narnia exists - do your worst, because it's nothing worse than what I always knew was coming. But I still believe. So he invests and commits to joy even as he sees the dark and terrible reality around him. The opposite of cynicsim, even if it's not the joy we always think of when we hear that word.