Stones

I sometimes experience remembered joy as a source of pain.

The memory of the joy provokes an indictment in my mind. There is a wincing self-infliction. Its source is an irrational fear. Its source is the fear of scarcity. Upon remembering joy, I feel the fear that joy is finite, that joy is scarce. I suffer under the false belief that as my life advances, more of the share of joy allotted to me is being lost into the past. The pain comes from the sense that I somehow ought to have been wiser about experiencing the joy better or holding onto it more tightly so that I could drag it a little farther with me into the future.

Example: One Saturday morning I ended up skipping stones with my younger daughter at the river not far from our house. This moment was, I now realize without much difficulty, one of joy. The moment was soulfully nourishing in a way that happiness is not. (More on that distinction in a bit.) The stone-skipping interlude is still so recent that I do not yet encounter my memory of it as pain, but I know from long experience that the memory has the potential to come to that. Right now, accurately or not, I still feel as though the exact magic of that moment could be recaptured. But this daughter of mine will grow, she will become more complex, she will no longer be as open to visiting the river with her dad, and I will naturally be tempted to look back on that moment as something lost. I will miss having the chance to go skip stones with a 10-year-old. I will feel this memory as an avenue no longer open. Yet the falseness of that feeling is found here: It fails to account for other avenues of joy that will have opened within that future time when I will feel this. Changes over time are not always losses, even though we are biased toward thinking this way. We have this bias simply because we know what has been, but we do not know what is coming. In my ignorance over what is to come, I pine over the known joys of the past rather than anticipating the joys before me that as yet are only known by God.

Joy and happiness are different. I’ve written about this, most recently here. What is joy, and how does it differ? The bible gives clues to a definition. According to Galatians 5:22-23, “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faith, gentleness, self-control.” The significant detail within this passage is “fruit,” the word being singular rather than plural. That is, these qualities are not “fruits” of the outflow of the Spirit, like a basket of varied and different fruits. There is one “fruit” and it is all these things. Joy, whatever it is, is the state that is also marked by the presence of rising and outflowing love, peace, patience, and the rest, all at the same time. What is joy? Joy is that thing that has love, peace, and patience in the mix as inherent parts of the very same thing.

Happiness does not have this quality. Happiness is more the state of a void being filled with the activity or attainment that can temporarily fill it. I may feel happy while cliff diving or eating ice cream. I may feel happy watching a particular TV show. I may feel happy if people are saying nice things about me because I have just done something they like. But none of these experiences comes with peace, patience, or love. Happiness is a pursuit, an activity positively performed or an object positively achieved. Joy, by contrast, is found in the negative space or the passive space, the air around and among these pursuits. Where happiness is an attainment, joy is that which is allowed to come when the obstacles to joy clear away.

Obstacles such as fear. As in my fear of scarcity. Let me make a vow, then: I will refuse to engage with such fear. (Can I make that refusal stick?)

Or obstacles such as hurt. A commitment, then: I will refuse to accept this hurt. (Is that choice available to me?)

Or obstacles such as isolation, which is often self-imposed. Or obstacles such as plans, which multiply with my ego’s assertion of all that I can or must do.

The time spent throwing stones happened because it was allowed to happen, and because it was the right thing to happen in the moment when it was allowed. The time spent throwing stones happened because I was blessed enough that all those obstacles fell away.

Let me not be mystical, however. In all this discussion of joy as a spiritual state, there is a real physical component. Right now, as I draft these words, I am strong enough not to engage with the fear that might find me, strong enough to avoid this obstacle to joy, largely for the simple reason that I slept well last night. I do not often do this. And the reasons I don’t sleep well often have to do with feeding fears or overfilling plans. Thus, the lack of joy actually follows a feedback loop bigger than just the quality of my attention or spirituality in a given moment or a decision I make right now. If I feed fear enough, or feed pride enough regarding all that I imagine I should do, then I can make my very brain and body too restless for joy to take root in my mind. I might be joyless simply because I have cultivated that state. That is, I might be helpless in my joylessness, because the obstacles to joy have already been raised against it.

Discovering this, there is nothing to do. There is nothing to do when this has happened, except the Spirit will find the way back. Or no.

No, that’s not quite the right way to express it. The Spirit will not find the way back, because the Spirit has no way back to find. The Spirit is not the party that became lost.

And here we come to an important point: Joy is fixed within the world. Joy is constant. Again, joy is altogether different from happiness in this regard. As we have seen, joy is an outflow of the Creator. Joy is the sun at the center of world’s system, and like the sun it relentlessly exerts its gravity.

It is we who lose our way. Defining the universe as being no bigger than our selves, we find no joy within it and despair. We then muscle through, doing without joy, perceiving that joy seemingly has spilled entirely away from what this universe contains.

But if we admit that joy is constant and it is bigger than us, if we accept this, then we can stop. We can stop as best we are able.

We stop, and we wait for the gravity of the sun to overcome the inertia of our failed attempt to throw ourselves into some other orbit that, instead of being higher up, is actually just farther out into the dark. We stop and we wait—we wait perhaps quite a while—until that inertia plays itself out and the arc of our trajectory brings us dropping like a stone back into joy’s orbit again. There is no sin in waiting for joy in this way.

I mentioned scarcity, my fear that joy is limited and I am spending my share.  The scarcity mentality is actually a particularly painful fallacy because it not only turns memories to pain, but also makes the prospect of the future painful. According to this fear, the future is a place that will have less and less joy in it.

However, if God is love (I John 4:8) and if love is joy (Galatians 5:22, as explained above), then by the nature of equivalency, God is joy.

God is joy. Which means that joy is not scarce at all, but is as infinite as God is.

There will always be joy. There will always be plenty. There will always be more joy to come. And when it comes to joy—not the case with happiness, but when it comes to joy—it is we who will always be too scarce to contain it all.