Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Politics of Joy: God's Equation

It’s Thursday night Chi Kung, and we are cultivating energy between our palms and then our own palms and a partner’s. Our teacher instructs us to remember a time when we felt pure joy, to recall it vividly, completely in every cell, to embody joy in this moment. Then he says: Bring this joy into your hands. Offer it as a gift to the world.

Joy springs, wells, swells between our palms. I see joy spilling over the world, spreading over the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, touching all the lives, feathered, finned and human, that have been and are being so devastated by the ongoing disaster. The joy stays with me after I leave class and into the next day. I realize it has been a long time since I have allowed myself to open to joy—not since April 20th at least. Since then, whether or not I am consciously thinking of the oil disaster, I feel it in my body, I carry it with me. Not as a noble, if futile, gesture, but simply because, like all of us, I am seventy percent ocean. How can all be well with me if all is not well with the sea?

A long time ago, I had a dream in which a religious authority reproached me for feeling joy in a world where there was hunger, poverty, oppression, war (this was before environmental depredation had made the list). In the dream I dared to answer the authority: “Joy is part of God’s equation.” Since I flunked algebra and am mathematically inept, equation was and is an unusual metaphor for me. Perhaps that is why the dream phrase stayed with me all these years, even as the internalized voice of the reproachful authority continues to rebuke me.

As to whether my vision of joy spilling from my hands over the earth had any effect on the oil disaster, I remain at best agnostic. When we pray for something or someone, we ourselves are changed and may be moved to act more effectively and compassionately. The effect of the vision on me was to illuminate how much dread and depression I have been carrying. I am not alone. As a counselor, I have noticed that people are not only coping with personal crises but are also chronically anxious about the world itself: economic uncertainty, the wars we are waging, political upheavals, and ecological disaster. The revised and extended list from my dream. Most people do their best to help in some way; some activists have clear callings. But many people also feel overwhelmed, helpless, or chronically guilty: “If I did more, if I consumed less…”

Joy is not a betrayal of sorrow for a suffering world; it is companion and counterpart. Joy can be an offering, an act of courage and encouragement. A healthy cell supporting a body that is struggling to heal. A strong hand extended to someone who is hanging off a cliff edge. Maybe what we do can never be enough, maybe no change we can make is radical enough. Maybe we won’t make it. Yet we can dare to know joy if only for a moment here and there, to embody it, to offer it to each other and to the world, to figure it into God’s mysterious, insoluble equation.

Note to readers: Instead of once a week, this summer I will be posting more like twice a month. Thanks for all the support!


  1. Maeve speaking: As I sit with my daughter Sarah on the eve of my daughter Boudica's devastating attack on Londinium, this post speaks to my condition.

    Eliz had promised me that sometime during July, she will be writing about our twenty year relationship, which began July 1990!

  2. JOY is elusive and has always been the muse of my spirit. the connection of one persons Joy (deep and spiritual) to all people is real and important to each of us. like the one drop that breaks the surface tension across the full glass - creating an overflowing on to all around - one person's Joy can break the hold of evil and darkness. the fact that we don't know which Joy fills the brim does not make it less so...

    oh my. I've stopped commenting and gone to posting here.


  3. If you don't have some capacity for joy; if you don't experience joy in your day to day life, you'll probably burn out, or turn into a ranting prophet of doom (maybe like the Old Testament prophets?).

    Without joy, how can you get up every day and do whatever--maybe good deeds, or bone-numbing work, like cleaning up the oily mess on the Gulf? Without joy, "do-gooders" become embittered, and their good works can turn sour, or worse.

    It's better to feel joy than to be overcome by pervasive guilt.

  4. Thank you for this beautiful, beautiful post. I will keep coming back to this one to remind myself how important it is to allow some joy through. If it doesn't save the world, it certainly makes it easier for those who have to live around us, and well, we don't miss out on noticing all the good stuff.

    "Joy can be an offering, an act of courage and encouragement."

    I've never thought of joy in this way--especially as an act of courage...this is really striking a chord with me! I feel myself opening to the desire to muster up the courage for joy.

    This quote is going on my wall. Thank you!

  5. Thank you Elizabeth. As one of the many people suffering from guilt and hopelessness, I needed to read this essay on Joy. It's easy to get sucked into the despair and outrage, but to be reminded of the gifts that we inherently possess to be healers and to be healed...that is quite refreshing.

  6. I have experienced truw JOy very recently in my trip to Cuba. If I could share this experience or some how harness it and pass it on I would. I am doing my part to remain happy and or find Joy in the wonderful things I have, even though every day is a trial that makes me want to run to the HIlls...any hills... just some hills..