Why it’s time to rediscover the sustaining power of joy
‘You can’t downplay the role of joy… it’s one of the great secrets of the human condition.’
It’s hard not to be blown away by this 2 minute excerpt from a conversation with Dr Cornel West (listen here). He shines an inspirational light on the challenge of living in a world where we are all part of the struggle for positive change.
Many will know Dr West for his civil rights campaigning in the United States, and he cuts an inspiring figure. His thoughts on joy offer something for us all. Be it building community, or helping our churches to become a place where everyone can take part – joy in the Christian imagination offers something solid and distinctive. We might resonate with this idea of finding joy in the struggle, in terms of our calling – or we may be just doing our best to get by in this season of life.
If the struggle feels more personal, it’s no less significant – maintaining being healthy and engaged in overwhelming circumstances offers a significant challenge to many of us. It’s normal to have fluctuations in our energy, mobility, and mood levels at different times. The common thread we face, whether our struggle is personal or corporate is how to sustain ourselves, and others, and find a way to access these deeper wells that God offers.
The difference between pleasure and joy
Dr West makes an important distinction between pleasure and joy:
‘For about the last 100 years we’ve been obsessed with pleasure. There’s nothing wrong with pleasure, but it’s not the same as joy – that’s what endures.’
The best community experiences are marked by ongoing moments of joy. Yet it’s also something we can lose when life becomes a dutiful slog, and it can be hard to regain when we hit the wall. We sometimes need others to help us reconnect with it and offer fuel for our souls. It seems to me that in the midst of the struggle, Dr West has tapped into this deeper well.
A time to mourn and a time to dance
Our good friend the community development veteran Dave Andrews went through some difficult days following a bereavement and shared his insights on what proved sustaining. The practice that helped him through this time was a daily meditation on the verse ‘The Joy of the Lord is My Strength.’ This experience underlines the distinctive quality joy offers, and demonstrates we can also experience it in a time of mourning.
‘What are the conditions for the possibility of joy?’ Asks Dr West, a voice that continues to find joy in the struggle. It’s worth reflecting on this in the light of the verses of Ecclesiastes. If ‘there is a time to mourn and a time to dance’ we should recognise we’re in a space in our society where active lament and celebration may become the only ways to sustain ourselves truthfully. Rather than a choice between the two actions, perhaps we can practice both?
Also, community itself can offer the answer if it’s involved in exploring the question of how we develop a practice of gratitude.
- Where is joy present in our community?
- Who are the joy givers around us?
- What do we notice in times of deep celebration?
- Are we taking time to celebrate the unexpected gifts?
It works particularly well when a church service gathers a small number of people the opportunity to give thanks. These spoken prayers in the service offer a time when we can all fully participate by recognising the gifts we have been given, in the face of all of life’s challenges. It’s a way to tap into joy whilst not being in denial of the struggle.
We’re at a point where we are often called on as communities to step up – perhaps a new need has arisen, or another has increased. We’d advise church leaders that the best response here is to identify the specific, unique gift your community can offer. I think when we can identify these gifts, we can release them with joy as expressions of our collective calling.
The tectonic plates of our society continue to shift and we find ourselves challenged. There’s a continual need to place our feet on the ground, stick a finger in the air and reorient ourselves to our true north. Let’s take the invitation of joy seriously as we choose to be individuals and communities that actively nurture ‘one of the great secrets of the human condition.’