Blog re-post: The Road Back to Joy
"The secret of happiness, is the avoidance of Angst. It is a mistake to consider happiness a positive state. By removing Angst, the condition of all unhappiness, we are then prepared to receive such blessings as may come our way."
- Cyril Connolly
I would replace Mr. Connolly's use of the word happiness with the word joy. Happiness is dependant upon external circumstance, whereas joy comes from within and can occur even in the midst of terrible circumstances (I'm reminded of Horatio Spafford, who--after being financially ruined in the Great Chicago Fire and losing his four daughters on the Titanic--wrote the hymn It Is Well with My Soul). Angst is a perfect word though for the feeling that permeates many people's lives. It is defined as fear, anxiety, apprehension, malaise, dis-ease. The Buddha called it dukkha and said "I teach one thing and one thing only: dukkha and the end of dukkha."
If you watch young children who are raised in a healthy environment, you see joy. We are born with a joie de vivre. It is a gift from God. But as we grow up and are exposed to (and harmed by) the complex matrix of human ignorance and sin that exists in the world, our joy is diminished--and in some cases, crushed.
We are also born with an innate desire for God, who is the source of joy. This desire gets redirected and mis-placed onto things much lower than God: the shiny new toy; the approval of others; a need for significance; sexual conquest; money and security, etc. This mis-placement of desire is one of the primary roots of sin. I think this is what the author of 1 John had in mind when he wrote:
"Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For everything in the world--the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does--comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but the man who does the will of God lives forever." (2:15-17)The objects of our mis-placed desire may bring a transient happiness, but they don't bring joy. In fact, the pursuit of these objects of desire actually leads to the further diminishment of our God-given joy. Eventually, our mis-placement of desire can result in our becoming enslaved to attachments and addictions. Then our joy is truly crushed.
This erosion of joy by the rains of angst is a long and gradual process. And so, the road back to joy is also a process. Whereas the first process was one of grabbing onto things, the second process is one of letting go. As we let go of the objects of desire and as we allow and embrace the emptiness that results, joy begins to seep back in. The Author of joy, who has been with us all along, loves to fill the empty spaces with Light. Angst diminishes. A quiet joy comes in its place. Another word for this experience is shalom. Deep peace.
The 17th century Quaker George Fox wrote, "Be still and cool in your own mind and spirit from your own thoughts, and then you will feel the principle of God to turn your mind to the Lord God, from whom life comes; whereby you may receive his strength and power to allay all blusterings, storms, and tempests. That is it which works up into patience, into innocence, into soberness, into stillness, into firmness, into quietness, up to God, with his power."
Jesus said, "I've come that you may have life, and have it to to the full." (John 10:10) This is what God wants for us: abundant, joyous life! But Jesus also warned, "Whoever tries to keep his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life will preserve it." (Luke 17:33)
Therein lies the paradox and the tricky part: How to let go? We want to grasp at joy, like we grasp at so many other things. But joy cannot be grasped. It can only be gratefully received. I find that just as joy is a gift from God, so is the ability to let go of the things that bring angst. For me, the more intent I become on accepting that God loves me without condition and then responding by simply being still in God's presence, the easier I find it to let go of my objects of desire. I care less what other people think of me. I find it easier to not awaken the sleeping beast of lust. The poison waters of angst begin to recede. Fresh waters of joy begin to bubble up unexpectedly.
And, I believe, this path of letting go and living in the awareness of God's loving presence will bring us to the point where we can honestly say, as Paul did, "I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through Him who gives me strength." (Philippians 4:12-13)
(Originally posted on 4/4/09. Edited slightly.)