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.