One of the saddest things I ever heard was from the mouth of the man for whom I first worked just after moving to town. I was trained, educated, and experienced in teaching but there were no teaching jobs lying about waiting to be scooped up by yours truly. Therefore, I took a six month secretarial basics course (a before-the-Ark course wherein we used typewriters) and then managed to finagle a job as secretary to the manager of a local mall. He has since passed on and I think about him with some sadness.
This manager was one of those people who can charm the spots from a giraffe and although not widely read was nonetheless interesting, funny, and a seasoned veteran of the retail business front. It was my first secretarial job and I had a lot to learn but he was always kind and patient with me. He had been through one marriage and one long-term girlfriend and was now seeing a lovely divorcee with three children. The man (we will call him Abe) had loads of friends, and a wide network of both social and business contacts. He eventually married the woman and became an immediate family man, a husband and a stepfather of three kids.
Abe’s habit towards the end of the day was to come out of his private office and sit in one of the visitor’s chairs opposite my desk and talk about his life. In this way, I had been a sort of insider throughout the courtship, engagement and marriage process and I so hoped that happiness would be their portion. About four months after the nuptials, he sat down at the end of a long day and started in on a long litany of all his woes. The list consisted of all the usual entries of ups and downs of family life and there was nothing startling or particularly disturbing. Abe’s voice had taken on a droning, monotonous tone and he finally said, “ What I want to know is, where is the joy?”
It seems that the first whirlwind of excitement had died down; the rush of delicious newness had faded, and here he was with a normal life. He expected joy to consist of a perpetual carousel of thrills and a constant supply of brass rings for him to grab. The broiled lobster and pineapple daiquiris had given way to meatloaf and domestic plonk. Daily life was now routine, and so he felt joyless. It may be interesting as a sidebar to note that Abe attended no church, subscribed to no particular belief system, and his wedding was a civil ceremony. None of that precludes earthly happiness of course, but it has a bearing on what comes next.
That question of his has been one that I have heard from others as well. Our narcissistic society of entitlement has ingrained so many of us with the belief that we should have an ecstatic life filled with exquisite thrills and that we should always FEEL good. When real life comes along with its dreary details, we feel betrayed and letdown. Where is the joy?
I can tell you one place that joy is not, and that is in ecstatic euphoria 24/7. Not this side of heaven at any rate. I have found joy to be something else, something both simpler and more profound that is thick with meaning and purpose.
There is joy in keeping your word no matter how difficult; in doing the right thing even when punished for so doing.
The thing our society calls 'happiness' is soulless and shallow, bought for the price of a new car, a theater sized television, the latest wardrobe, or the fleeting thrill of an affair. The happy feelings are just that – feelings, and they are fleeting, here for a short spike in the chart. When we confuse happiness and joy, we seek the next spike, and the next. We are never sated.
My parents would ask of one of my siblings, “ Good heavens. Are you never happy?”, when after his birthday party he would ask for something that he didn't receive in his gift pile. I have seen parents and grandparents shower children with enough toys, games, and treats to furnish the wildest dreams of so many of the earth's kids, and watched the same children grow discontented, demanding, unhappy little tyrants.
Joy, that beautiful condition is not to be achieved from without. We cannot pursue it or buy it. It cannot be gifted. Joy is a result, the result of a life fully lived to purpose.
A gag line goes, “Those who say you cannot buy happiness are shopping in the wrong stores”. It is cute, but if shopping results in happiness, then happiness is destined to be short-lived, frustrating, and superficial. It can no more produce lasting joy than a dog can sustain a huge smile.
I figured all of this out when I was still pretty young. No prodigy, I simply observed something one Christmas when a girl whose family had little money received one gift at Christmas, a baby doll with a layette including bottle, feeding dish, little towel and washcloth, and change of clothing. Her mum knit a couple of sweaters and bonnets for the doll as an extra to the layette. This kid was overjoyed and she played with that baby doll for many years. She loved it to pieces and spent many joyful hours making clothes out of scraps for it and learning to knit her own bits and pieces for its wardrobe.
On the other end of the happy spectrum was the family with more dollars than sense who gave their kids a giant pile of presents each. There were so many that opening them got to be a mindless ripping of paper, a quick look at the gift, then on to the next. It had all the charm and exuberance of an enforced march. When all the gifts were opened, the children looked around for the next package and the boy queried his over-generous and under-brained parents, “Is that all?”
These kids couldn't settle on what to play with because there was too much choice. Eventually most of this bounty was cast aside, broken, or trashed as the kids began their next round of “ I want “.
How hard is joy going to be to find for kids who grow up like this, or for those who don't have as much but spend their days in envy of those who do, believing that with great plenty comes great fulfillment?
One of the greatest meditations is on the example of the rich young man who sadly walked away when Jesus told him to divest himself of all his possessions, then to come and follow Him. Much has been said about how hard it is for a rich man to enter the Kingdom, and that in fact it would be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle. It is very hard to consider life without all of the props, but true joy has never depended on what we can carry on our backs, or for that matter, on our camels!