I wonder if you have to reach a certain age before you can know the difference between happiness and joy … if the years and experiences have to pile up beyond your ability to make sense of them, leaving you — and leading you — to wonder.
I have heard it said that happiness is situational, but joy can be felt regardless of circumstances — indeed, can arise in the worst of circumstances, because of deeply held values, meaningful commitments and sacrifices, paramount relationships, and especially the realization of connectedness and commonwealth.
In the United States, our Declaration of Independence asserts that
all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
Maybe herein lies another way to approach the difference between happiness and joy. The best we humans could imagine at the point of our nation’s birth was that each man had the right to pursue happiness. Maybe our Creator imagines something different: joy pursuing us … all of us. Through everything. In the most unexpected places.
Joy arising like an enlightened man, unfolding from beneath a bodhi tree.
Joy arising like a new shoot from a long-ago-chopped stump.
Joy arising like a best friend, days dead in his grave.
Joy arising like calligraphy flowing from a pen, taking divine dictation.
Joy arising like desert mothers and fathers, holy fools amid solitude’s struggles.
It is the joy that arises in unexpected places, even in the midst of misery, that holds the sharpest tang. This I know for true after a year and more of chaplaincy: work I did not choose and did not want, but that turned keys in my heart and unlocked joy.
Joy is what happens when I am sitting with a woman whose child has just died and even in her grief and mine there is a deep recognition that we are not alone, and that there is something life-giving in having loved so deeply and completely that grief can rend one wide open.
Joy is what happens when I am praying with a little old man and we open our eyes and he grins and sings a threefold amen and calls me darlin’.
Joy is what happens when a woman facing a cancer diagnosis, whose faith is not adequate to the abyss before her, somehow finds comfort in the steadiness of my gaze and my assurance that she is not and will not be forsaken.
Joy is what happens every time the something more arises within us and among us and between us, as hearts share what none can bear alone, whether happiness or grief, birth or death, love or loss … joy is the happiness in the grief, the new beginning in the midst of death, and the love piercing every loss.
Whether arising in the sweet or the bitter, though, the one thing that is sure about joy is that we can’t hold on to it, any more than we can hold onto the last echoes of a song, the last tendrils of fragrance, the hem of a garment.
We can only live in such a way that joy will, someday, arise among us once more … as it always has, and as it surely will.
Weeping may linger for a night,
but joy comes in the morning.