The project was a failure. I mean, I was the teacher, so no one was really going to grade me on it. But I had mentally written a big “F” all over the idea. It seemed so simple! “Create a 1-3 minute video that defines happiness.” What could go wrong?!? I was teaching 8th Grade English in a private school, and I can’t even remember what book we were studying. But I was still new and filled with ideas. I had thought this one would be gold. But as it turns out, I’m not sure that your average teenager really knows what happiness is. I had envisioned them weaving in short segments of vocations, family time, hobbies, etc. Instead, I found myself looking at pictures of butterflies and flowers and students spinning in office chairs across a stage. At any rate, they seemed to have fun making the videos, so maybe it wasn’t a complete loss after all. But still, I was surprised by their apparent lack of joy. Maybe they just weren’t old enough. Maybe they just didn’t know how to recognize it and label it. After all, there is a fine line between something that brings you momentary pleasure and something that gives you joy. That was 6 years ago. Do you think it would be different if I asked them to do the same project today? What if I asked you?
Maybe it’s because I told them to go looking for it. Maybe joy is more of a surprise. Like this picture of my son. We had had his first birthday party for him not long before this picture was taken. We invited all the family and had the house filled with lots of presents, trying to make a big deal out of celebrating him. And it went ok, but you know how it is. He had more fun playing with the boxes than the actual toys, and the texture of the icing on the cake made him cry when he got it all over his face. So the expectation didn’t play out; we had failed to manufacture joy on a level we would have liked. But then, one day we were walking by my parents’ pond, and I captured this image. His face here is one of pure joy, at least in my mind. There was nothing special about the occasion. No presents. No cake. Just the wild discovery that my voice echoed off the valley walls in that particular spot by the paddle boat. He thought it was the funniest thing in the world. And once is never enough for a toddler. I had to make the sound at least 20 times, but each seemed to be funnier than the last. I was lucky enough to snap this picture and capture the moment that my son was entirely surprised by joy.
This Sunday’s Advent message is JOY, and the truth is that joy and happiness have always been a bit surprising, and not a little elusive and hard to nail down. Sometimes it floods over you in a moment without explanation. Sometimes you can’t see it unless you back on your life and see times that might have been joyful. It happens when you find old photos or start telling stories of beloved memories of family or friends. But at the time the event was taking place, you might not even have realized you were experiencing joy. But it always seems to happen without explanation. It’s always a bit of a surprise.
Joy seems to be something, like pain (inexplicably), that’s mixed up with our everyday lives, and it sneaks up and surprises us at the strangest moments when we least expect it. The holidays are like that. We can forget that the joy of the season can become mixed with pain for those who have suffered loss. We laugh at Porky Pig singing “Blue Christmas,” but after any major loss, the holidays can take on an entirely different feel, and seeing what feels like everyone else having a great time can sometimes increase the isolation. Take my grandmother, for instance, who was cooking Christmas dinner when her four-year-old daughter accidentally pulled a boiling pot onto herself. She didn’t survive, and the holidays were never the same for my grandmother. The joy of the season had become forever mixed with the pain and grief of loss. Once major tragedy or suffering strikes, joy seems to come only as brief moments when you become lost in something happy and forget your pain for just a little while. (The poet Wordsworth immortalized this awkward mix of emotions in his poem “Surprised by Joy” where he recounts momentarily forgetting the death of his daughter.) Some of the same memories or photos that used to bring you joy now bring pain instead. Grief is complicated, and different for everyone, but I pray that you find a way to keep the joy alive. And be patient with those who are still finding their own path through grief. Sometimes it takes time, a lot of it.
In his book, Surprised by Joy, C.S. Lewis traces his own journey through life and his own encounters with something he labels “joy.” For him, the concept is something (like God) that is indescribable, too high up for words. For him, “joy” is more “like a ‘signpost’ to those lost in the woods, pointing the way, and that its appearance is not as important ‘when we have found the road and are passing signposts every few miles.’” And he notes a distinction between pleasure and Joy, saying, “I sometimes wonder whether all pleasures are not substitutes for Joy.” Indeed, we fill our lives with pursuing pleasures that can sometimes leave us feeling empty, so much that we might be blind to the Joy that’s right in front of us.
So open your eyes this season so that Joy might surprise you. Don’t let fear of pain or pursuit of pleasure keep your heart from glowing with the joy you’ve found. It’s there; you just have to learn to see it. Let it shine a little brighter than the pain that won’t seem to go away. Let it surprise you.