It should be easy to write about joy. At least, that is what one immediately thinks. After all, we know what brings us joy: family, love, laughter, right livelihood. And we can certainly write about those things. However, joy, the thing itself, is a bit slippery as writing topics go. At least, as this week has progressed I have found it difficult to write anything true or meaningful about joy. Why is that?
First, it seems that everything I’ve tried to say has been impossible to express without sounding hokey (at best) or insincere (at worst). It is much easier to write believable prose about despair or death or darkness, in part because we often feel the impetus to express these difficult extremes carefully, so that others can understand the exact shade or quality of our emotion. When it comes to joy, we assume everyone experiences it similarly. It is like the Tolstoy quote: “All happy families are alike. Each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Our darkness is unique, our light is universal – or so it can feel when we try to capture it in words.
Second, joy is not the same as mere happiness (not to dis happiness, which is awesome!). Joy is something at once deeper and more profound than happiness, it seems to me. One of my all-time favorite movie scenes captures this beautifully. In “Immortal Beloved“, a deaf Beethoven (played by Gary Oldman) stands on stage during a performance of his “Ode to Joy”. As he watches the orchestra play, hearing the music he wrote only in his imagination, Beethoven thinks back to the night which inspired this particular musical masterpiece. He is a boy who has escaped, for one night, his abusive father. He has run into the woods, and come to a pond. The boy gets into the water and begins to float on his back, staring up at the milkyway, which is reflected in the water around him. The boy, the water, the stars: they merge into one. The boy becomes one more shining point of light within the night sky; one tiny but essential part of the cosmos. And in this moment of union and communion with all of creation – JOY.
That, friends, is what I have been unable to express this week. Joy, as opposed to happiness or love or other good-to-great feelings, is experienced in such moments of one-ness with all of creation. There is much written about making deep joy sustainable through spiritual practice. Who am I to claim whether that is possible or not? I only know that I haven’t achieved that level of dharma or mystic union or Godliness in my own life. I have had moments, crystalline in their beauty and etched eternally on my heart, when joy has surprised and humbled me. The promise of Advent is that such joy is available to us all – as a gift. We have only to open our hearts and allow ourselves to receive it.