Interrupting The ABC of Intercultural Identity to bring you my column, "Joy," first published in the Gallup Independent's "Spiritual Perspectives" on December 25, 2021. The day after it was published, Desmond Tutu, who is such an important part of this piece, passed on. With people around the world, I mourn our loss of his joyful, wise presence on this plane.
"Joy to the World" is my favorite Christmas carol, but it wasn't originally written for Christmas. The nonconformist clergyman, Isaac Watts, wrote the words based on Psalm 98. He saw it as being more about Christ's second coming than Jesus's first one––his birth. The exuberant tune was developed by Lowell Mason, using musical phrases from George Frederic Handel's The Messiah. I also love Three Dog Night's completely different, though equally high-spirited pop song of the same title. In their words, joy is for all the world, all the boys and girls, the fishes in the deep blue sea, and for you and me. These songs affect me like the Jewish Passover song, "Dayenu," which is an explosion of gratitude, where we sing that whatever God did for us––opening the Red Sea, for one––it would have been enough! I have a rabbi friend who likes to add more verses, like, "If God had only found me a parking place, it would've been enough!" Gratitude for the smallest things and the biggest things.
The quality of joy in all three of these songs is one of excitement and great good cheer. Joy can embody those things—exuberance and excitement––but it is also more and deeper than that. I read a quote not long ago that said something like, "It's easy to forget that I am made for joy." I resonated with that quote. I so easily default to what is wrong in a given circumstance. I forget, or don't even believe, that I am created for joy. I decided if I am to live like I'm made for joy, I would need to consciously cultivate it. If I didn't form the intention to be joyful, it might only happen randomly.
I started looking for resources that might help me, and I found The Book of Joy, which is based on a week of interviews with the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Both of these men have been through experiences filled with anguish; yet both of them exude joy. All you have to do is look at their faces or listen to them laugh and even giggle to know it's true.
I've started reflecting each morning on what the two men call the eight pillars of joy––ways of looking at life that can help us nurture joy. The first is perspective––having a point of view that is wider than me and enables me to reframe a difficult situation positively. Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl often said that our perspective or attitude toward life is our final and ultimate freedom. With the freedom to choose how we respond to the things that happen to us, comes joy.
The second pillar is humility, which brings us down to Earth and reminds us that we are just one among many, and whatever our abilities may be, they are pure gifts. We don't have these gifts because we are better than anyone else.
Third is humor. The Dalai Lama made a connection between wholehearted laughter and a warm heart. A warm heart is intimately connected with happiness. Both men emphasized how important it is to be able to laugh at ourselves, which of course, is related to humility.
Acceptance is the fourth pillar––being able to accept reality as it comes to us, not to fight against the way things are. From the Dalai Lama again: "Stress and anxiety come from our expectations of how life should be," instead of accepting life as it is.
Forgiveness, the fifth pillar, is the path to freeing ourselves from our past. It is a way to heal ourselves, so we are free to experience joy.
Sixth is gratitude. Thankfulness helps us celebrate and rejoice in each day that we have and in all the small and great gifts that come to us. Gratitude is allowing life to delight us.
Compassion is the seventh pillar. When we say, "How can I help?" even in the midst of our own anguish, our pain is transformed. Both the archbishop and the Dalai Lama emphasized again and again that as humans we are wired to be caring for others. We experience more joy when we are thinking of others than when we are focused on ourselves.
Generosity is the final pillar of joy. It can be encapsulated in a phrase from a prayer attributed to St. Francis of Assissi: "It is in giving that we receive." What we receive when we give to others is joy.
It is wonderful when joy comes to us spontaneously, but we can also choose joy as a spiritual practice. We can choose to live the joy we were made for.
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