How to practice joy in challenging times. Let me begin by saying what this topic is not. This is not about denying the validity of other emotions: anger, grief, depression, frustration, fear. It is not about suppressing or ignoring trauma, being some Pollyanna who is just happy-happy-happy all the time in a shallow way that denies reality. Practicing joy is about building resilience, being intentional about moving through these other emotions to a place of joy. It is about figuring out where we have control, what to let go, and recognizing blessings everywhere we can.
I will start with some specific techniques. Then we’re going to get into savoring, gratitude, contentment, and serving.
William Irvine, a professor of philosophy, talks about the Stoic frame on the world, especially when it comes to dealing with challenges and setbacks. When bad things happen, there are two techniques we can utilize to minimize their harm in our lives.
The first technique is what Irvine calls the trichotomy of control.
There are things over which you have control, such as your values and choices.
There are things over which you have no control, such as whether it’s going to rain today.
And there are things over which you have partial control, such as performing in a competition—you can practice and practice and do your best, but you can’t control what the judges think or how well the other contestants do.
Irvine says, Don’t waste your time on the things you can’t control. Focus on what you can control.
We can’t control that there is a deadly coronavirus loose in the world. We can control how we respond to it. We can choose to get vaccinated, stay home, refrain from hugging, wear masks, worship on Zoom. Those things we can control. We cannot control whether other people do these things. So we focus on what we can control. We do what we can where we are with what we have.
Viktor Frankl, when he was in a concentration camp, chose kindness, chose to remember his wife with joy, even though he never saw her again. He recognized, in a terrible situation, the things he could control.
So that’s the first technique for dealing with harmful situations: focus on what you can control and where you have choices. The second technique is to look at how things could have been much worse.
We’re two years into this pandemic. Millions of people around the world have died. Millions more have gotten sick, and some of those have developed what is called long COVID, where the symptoms won’t quit. Millions have lost their jobs. People are homeless or staving off eviction. It’s bad.
When Professor Irvine’s students say that things can’t get any worse, he has them imagine living in London during the Blitz in World War II. Every night, thousands of people left their homes to go sleep among hundreds of strangers down in the Underground Tube stations. All night they could hear bombs falling above them. In the morning they would go back and see if their homes were still standing. That’s pretty bad, too. And it helps put in perspective what we still do have. No one’s bombing our homes.
Irvine suggests imagining the things you have in your life that you love: relationships with loved ones, a home, food, independence, and so on. And then, without dwelling on this for too long, just imagine for a moment that those people and other blessings were gone. How would you feel? How do you feel now that you know they are not gone? This is not to dwell in morbid places; rather, it’s about recognizing, Oh, that’s right—these things are still in place, still working. I am grateful.
This is a reminder that everything is transient: relationships, possessions, life itself. We forget that that’s normal. When we are aware of that transience, we can savor all the goodness that surrounds us right now. I want to spend some time on savoring and gratitude and how these are connected to joy.
That savoring, gratitude, and joy show up in our reading from Psalm 30. The writer of this psalm had apparently been deathly ill, prayed fervently to God, and then recovered. In our Bible study discussion last Monday, one person noted that we go along with our lives, hum-de-dum, and everything’s okay. Then something terrible happens, or nearly happens. A deathly illness, as in this psalm. The accident narrowly averted, or with minimal damage when it could have been deadly. And suddenly our gratitude and joy skyrocket. We are so thankful just to be alive. Those moments show us how easily life could be other than it is. They wake us up to all that is good, to all that matters to us, to all that we nearly lost in that blink of an eye. And we find ourselves gasping with joy and relief, saying, “Thank God, thank you, God! Hallelujah!”
What happens in that moment of disaster or near disaster is that everything gets reframed. We no longer take anything for granted. Everything is a gift, we are grateful, and everything can give us joy.
The poet Mary Oliver made a daily practice of getting out in nature and watching, listening, savoring. In her poem “Mindful,” she writes, “Every day / I see or hear / something / that more or less/ kills me / with delight.” [Mary Oliver, “Mindful,” in Why I Wake Early (Boston: Beacon Press, 2004).] She says this is what she was born for: “to instruct myself / over and over / in joy / and acclamation.” This is not the joy of winning a prize or meeting some hard-fought goal. It is the joy in ordinary things that surround us every day. This is how we can cultivate a practice of joy, even in challenging times. Wake up to it. Savor it intentionally. Give thanks for it.
Brené Brown writes,
Joy comes to us in moments – ordinary moments. We risk missing out on joy when we get too busy chasing down the extraordinary. Scarcity culture may keep us afraid of living small, ordinary lives, but when you talk to people who have survived great losses, it is clear that joy is not a constant. Without exception, all the participants who spoke to me about their losses, and what they missed the most, spoke about ordinary moments. “If I could come downstairs and see my husband sitting at the table and cursing at the newspaper…” “If I could hear my son giggling in the backyard…” “My mom sent me the craziest texts – she never knew how to work her phone. I’d give anything to get one of those texts right now.” (Brené Brown, Daring Greatly)
Ordinary moments. And we don’t realize what joy they bring us until they’re not there.
Last week I invited you to send me photos of what brings you joy. You sent me sunrises and sunsets, grandchildren and pets. We can savor each other, give thanks for each other, knowing that we will not always have each other. When my grandmother was dying in her 90s, back in 1993, I drove down to Horizon House to see her and to say whatever needed to be said. She was sitting in a wheelchair in the hall of the infirmary unit. I crouched down next to her wheelchair; some nice nurse brought me a chair. And I just told my grandmother how much I loved her, and how grateful I was to have her in my life. All the times she greeted us at the door of her house and said, “Now, there are Oreos in the utility room, and chocolate cake with seven-minute frosting, and candied orange slices in the guest room…”—this litany of sugar that she kept on hand for us. All the times my sister and I had overnights at her house. At breakfast she cut our toast into strips and we built log cabins with them, before slathering them with butter and homemade jam. She loved us every way she knew how, even when we were sullen teenagers who thought she wouldn’t understand the angst we were going through. Sitting next to her in the hallway at Horizon House, I told her all this. I said, “And you made great apple pies.”
Up until this point she really hadn’t given any indication that she could hear me. I was saying these things because I needed to say them. Because I knew she was dying and I was savoring that she was still with me and already missing her. I needed to let her know how much she meant to me and how grateful I was for all she had been in my life.
And then she said, “I did make good pies.” So apparently she had heard every word. Which, I have to say, gave me some sense of closure later, when she was gone.
We get to savor each other, wake up to the gifts of each other, practice loving each other, recognize joy in each other.
In our reading from Philippians, Paul writes that he has learned to be content in whatever circumstances he finds himself. Whether he is hungry or well-fed, welcomed or kicked out of town, he knows that he lives in God, that God loves him and calls him to something greater than himself, which is to serve God and God’s people. Paul’s life is not just about his personal comfort, so he finds his joy elsewhere.
You may recall that Paul’s ministry was not easy. On multiple occasions he was severely beaten. More than once he was thrown into prison. Preaching the Good News and starting or nurturing new churches throughout the Mediterranean, sharing a prophetic message of joy and love and liberation among the oppressed meant that people in power felt threatened, that he was in danger often. But he refused to be a victim. Instead he chose to practice joy, to learn to be content with whatever he had. Earlier in this chapter he writes, “Rejoice in God always; again I will say Rejoice” (Phil. 4:4). Surely he must have been discouraged at times. But he had a larger mission. He did what he could where he was with what he had. And that turned out to be a lot.
Professor Irvine, who I mentioned earlier, talks about the “Gap Theory of Happiness.” There is a gap between what we have and what we want. Paul might have thought, “If only I had something to eat, I would be happy.” But instead he practiced being content with whatever he had. We may say, If only I could get a better job, or had more money, or didn’t have such a noisy neighbor, or could lose that extra weight, or . . . fill in the blank. If only this were different, I could be happy. That’s the Gap Theory of Happiness, that we will be happy if only we can fill that gap. But if we fill that gap, there’s always another one. And Professor Irvine suggests that we focus on what we already have, because then there’s no gap, and we can be happy right now. Give thanks. Rejoice in God always.
In her poem “Welcome Morning,” Anne Sexton writes,
There is joy
in the hair I brush each morning,
in the Cannon towel, newly washed,
that I rub my body with each morning,
in the chapel of eggs I cook
All this is God,
right here in my pea-green house
There’s the spiritual discipline, right there: All this is God. All of it. Rejoice.
Joy is based in gratitude. When you sit down to a meal together, instead of saying grace, name what we’re grateful for. Little things, big things. I’m grateful for lambs, and for learning how to get an obstinate ewe to nurse her little boy. I’m grateful for two ferries on the day’s Whidbey Island ferry run. I’m grateful for homemade sourdough waffles. And suddenly everything is a gift. We can practice framing the day in gratitude and joy, love and delight. We can practice seeing even a smidgen of what is good around us and in us: seedlings poking up out of the dirt, a bite of really good chocolate, the smell of Christmas trees, sunlight through fog, getting warm and dry after being out in the wind and rain. We can practice recognizing joy and gratitude.
When we choose joy, other things may lose their power to hurt us. Writer Austin Channing Brown says,
The poet Toi Derricotte revolutionized Black feminism with one line in a poem, “joy is an act of resistance.” With that one line, she gave Black women an opportunity to rethink the work of racial justice. Finally we were given permission not to just be mules for the work of racial justice- carrying a kicking and screaming country into a better future. We were given permission to also see our joy as giving a middle finger to white supremacy. And when we stop to think about this one beautiful sentence, [“Joy is an act of resistance,”] it unlocks a world of truthfulness. Historically, America has both been completely uninterested in the joyfulness, the happiness of Black women and has actively worked to villainize our joy. Our dancing. Our hair. Our laughter. Our desire for luxury and access and opportunity. Our sexuality. Our dress and jewelry. Our jokes and conversation. Our songs. Black girls and Black women alike have our joy misconstrued as disrespectful, arrogant, or perpetually inappropriate. Our joy is suspicious. And what right have we to joy when we have so much work to do? Ms. Derricotte, with the wonder that only poetry can unearth, gives an answer. We aren't just pursuing racial justice when we are organizing or voting or protesting or speechmaking or volunteering or working… we are also pursuing justice when we indulge in joy. [Austin Channing Brown, Joy As Resistance - by Austin Channing Brown (substack.com)]
Joy is an act of resistance, of resilience, of justice—for Paul in his ministry, for Black women today, and for us. We’ve been in a pandemic for two years. Two years! We have all been through loss, grief, and struggles during this time. People have lost loved ones, lost jobs, lost income. We’ve all had to adapt to lockdowns, isolation, Zoom meetings, a lack of hugs. Practicing joy in such times may not seem intuitive, but it can be life-saving. Look around you. You have a home. You have people who love you. You have food to eat. And so much more. Learn to be content in whatever circumstances you find yourself. Awaken to love, savor joy, name that for which you are grateful. God is in all of it. And you will find, even in such times as these, that life can be filled with joy. Amen.