It may be harder than ever to ignore that the world is full of hard, painful, messed-up things. And for many who work in hurting and vulnerable communities, this may feel like just one more crisis to add to the growing list of needs that never seem to end.
But science has become increasingly convincing about the importance of making space in our lives for gratitude, beauty, and joy (all of which, by the way, are interrelated). It turns out, they are the key to unshackling us from toxic emotions, building resilience, and making meaning of our lives. But more than this, says author Ingrid Fetell Lee, “When we relinquish our ability to feel joy, we’re relinquishing an essential part of our humanity.”
“If we take the joy out of learning, it becomes a chore. If we take the joy out of companionship, it becomes obligation. Any area of life where we lose joy is impoverished by that loss.
“And while this has painful implications for individuals, as a society, the consequences can be devastating. If we see joy as a luxury, then it’s easy to believe that it’s something you can earn or deserve. That can lead to policies that deprive the poor of joy simply because they haven’t “earned” it. When housing projects are designed to be spartan and bare, even when more joyful buildings would cost no more, or when public assistance is restricted from being used for any small pleasures, it dehumanizes the poor and creates yet another barrier to their flourishing.”
For those who work in areas of injustice and advocacy, it can seem impossible, even wrong, to find joy amidst so much suffering and heartache. Even this reminder, that not everyone has access to the same amount of beauty and flourishing, makes us angry! But once again, we need to call ourselves back to the truth of what it means to be human. “Oftentimes, in the work of social justice, we focus so much on the struggle, that we forget how to be an actual person in the midst of everything,” writes the nonprofit Borderlinks. “We are sometimes so blinded by the awareness of our privilege that we can’t be fully human anymore, or we become so run down by the struggles, the hardship, and the heartbreak, that it feels like a lost cause.
So, does joy mean we ignore all of the pain, suffering, and injustice in the world around us? Absolutely not. But it does mean that we make a conscious decision to be a whole person and see the whole person – and that includes the strength, resilience, and clear-headed hope of choosing joy.
“A joyful heart,” says Henri Nouwen, “is a heart in which something new is being born.” And this new thing is what the world most desperately needs – not another reason to despair.