…Though I try
to hide it I burn with joy like a bonfire
on a mountain, and tomorrow
and the next day make me shudder
equally with hope and fear.
— “Arriving” by Marge Piercy
When I was in high school, I joined an ecumenical youth group which had a tremendous impact on my life, my beliefs, and my worldview. At one point, we adopted a practice of signing notes, cards, etc. with the acronym J.O.Y. — which, in youth group parlance stood for the phrase “Jesus, Others, You”. If we committed ourselves to J.O.Y. (in that order) we would experience joy in our lives.
In describing my own path, I have no desire to offend anyone else’s beliefs. Putting God and others ahead of self may be both appropriate and right. However, when I regularly attempted this I rarely experienced joy. In fact, until recently joy had pretty much fallen off my radar as something I hoped to experience — it was just too far off the grid of normal, daily life.
So here is what I believe now. Human beings are meant to experience joy. My mother was wrong (sorry, Mom!) when she told us “life isn’t about being happy”. I don’t mean we should expect to feel giddy every moment of every day. There will be trials, tribulations, burnt toast and stubbed toes. Cancer and poverty aren’t going away any time soon. But we were created to feel that deep down satisfaction that comes from being truly happy. In order to get there, you may sometimes have to put your priorities in a different order: oyj or yoj or jyo — or even include completely different letters in your personal joy acronym.
One day, not too long ago, I was having a really cruddy time of it. Nothing was going right, I had experienced a big disappointment, it was raining. For most of my life, a day like that would occasion a feeling of “why do I always have it so bad?”. But this time it was different: I was having a cruddy day. But I was happy. How could that be?
In looking at that experience, what I discovered is that one thing had changed — I had shifted my priorities in order to develop a “right relationship” with myself. I can remember talking with a friend about how all the self-focus felt incredibly self-ish to me. She told me that, by working on my own issues and healing past wounds, I was bringing something good to the world, not just to myself. I wasn’t sure at the time, but now I can see she was right.
Which brings me to the poem excerpt at the beginning of this entry. Sometimes, we try to hide the joy we feel because it can be uncomfortable to stand out so starkly from our surroundings. Sometimes, we are afraid that it makes us a target for others who wish to stamp out our fire, and there are certainly people out there who might try. But it is also true that it adds to the measure of our days to interact with people who exude joy. We are energized and inspired by them. And maybe, when it is you (or me) burning like a bonfire of joy, we will be lighting the way for someone else. This is the hope part of the equation.