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The documentary film Happy (2011) by Roko Belic begins in a muddy slum of Kolkata, where a rickshaw driver named Manoj Singh exudes not just happiness but something like pure joy: "My home is good," he says. "We live well." He points to some sticks covered by a tarp. "When I come home from work and my son greets me, I feel like I'm not poor but the richest person in the world. My neighbors are good, we stay together, we're all friends."

The craziest part about this opening scene is that you believe Singh, and you wish that you had just a little bit of what he has.

 Calcutta woman by Partha Pal.
Calcutta woman by Partha Pal.

You don't have to look far in our day for good reasons to despair. Government corruption and incompetence. Corporate malfeasance. Gun violence, opioid epidemics, systemic racism. The mindlessness and vulgarity of television. Powerful technological means like gene editing or Big Data with few ethical ends to constrain them. A third of American children who do not graduate from high school. And a world like Singh's in which half the population lives on pennies a day.

Last week I read a book of poetry that offers a counter-intuitive narrative. In Joy:100 Poems (Yale, 2017), I was reminded of a better way to live. Don't take the bait. However low the sociological trends and opinion polls sink, don't yield to the spirit of despair. Rather, and despite all that we know and experience, choose a radical act of cultural defiance — genuine joy. Joy, these diverse poets affirm, isn't just possible or desirable. It's an essential aspect of being truly and fully human.

Joy is more like an epiphany than an intellectual effort or a psychological emotion. It is often mediated through an experience in nature, like the smell of summer rain, the beauty of a flower, or the pounding waves of the ocean surf. Joy comes to us in the sacred ordinary, like working in the garden or enjoying a long run. It's different than good fortune, pleasure or happiness.

Joy is a sort of provocation or longing that nothing can satisfy, a stab or ache that points us to the transcendent. In his autobiography Surprised By Joy, CS Lewis describes joy as "an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction… I doubt whether anyone who has tasted it would ever, if both were in his power, exchange it for all the pleasures in the world."

 Malick Sidibé, Look at Me! (1962), Balako, Mali.
Malick Sidibé, Look at Me! (1962), Balako, Mali.

In my favorite poem from Wiman's anthology, joy is even a duty or obligation. Consider "A Brief for the Defense" by Jack Gilbert:

Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies
are not starving someplace, they are starving
somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.
But we enjoy our lives because that's what God wants.
Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not
be made so fine. The Bengal tiger would not
be fashioned so miraculously well. The poor women
at the fountain are laughing together between
the suffering they have known and the awfulness
in their future, smiling and laughing while somebody
in the village is very sick. There is laughter
every day in the terrible streets of Calcutta,
and the women laugh in the cages of Bombay.
If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,
we lessen the importance of their deprivation.
We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.
If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,
we should give thanks that the end had magnitude.
We must admit there will be music despite everything.
We stand at the prow again of a small ship
anchored late at night in the tiny port
looking over to the sleeping island: the waterfront
is three shuttered cafés and one naked light burning.
To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat
comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth
all the years of sorrow that are to come.

We must risk joy!

Psalm 98 is only one example from Scripture that calls us to joy:

Sing to the Lord a new song,
   for he has done marvelous things;
his right hand and his holy arm
   have worked salvation for him.
The Lord has made his salvation known
   and revealed his righteousness to the nations.
He has remembered his love
   and his faithfulness to the house of Israel;
all the ends of the earth have seen
   the salvation of our God.

Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth,
   burst into jubilant song with music;
make music to the Lord with the harp,
   with the harp and the sound of singing,
with trumpets, and the blast of the ram's horn—
   shout for joy before the Lord, the King.

Let the sea resound, and all that is in it,
   the world, and all who live in it.
Let the rivers clap their hands,
   let the mountains sing together for joy;
let them sing before the Lord,
   for he comes to judge the earth.
He will judge the world in righteousness
   and the peoples with equity.

The ancient poet invites each person, every nation, even "all the ends of the earth," to experience the joy of being known and loved by Israel's God.

 Joy of Life by Lawrence Finney.
Joy of Life by Lawrence Finney.

The opposite of joy isn't sadness or sorrow but anxiety. Jesus encouraged his followers, "do not worry about your life… Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?" Consider the birds in their morning songs, or the flowers in their spring time glory, he said. If the Lord of the universe clothes creation with such extravagance, then we can rejoice in his love regardless of our circumstances. In John's gospel, Jesus says that we rest in his love "so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete."

And so we "risk joy." We do so without any sense of false-consciousness, or even (especially?!) of false conscientiousness. In Christian parlance, the English mystic Juliana of Norwich (1342–1416) put it this way: "The greatest honor that we can give almighty God is to live gladly because of the knowledge of his love."

Image credits: (1) TrekEarth; Learning About the World Through Photography; (2); and (3)

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