“The marvelous richness of human experience would lose something of rewarding joy if there were no limitations to overcome. The hilltop hour would not be half so wonderful if there were no dark valleys to traverse.”
Today, I spoke with a friend who has experienced great sadness over the past few years. And yet, he radiates joy. Without going through dark and difficult times, he confided, you cannot understand the full measure of joy. Helen Adams Keller was well acquainted with suffering from an early age. Born a healthy child, she contracted an illness when she was 19 months old that left her deaf and blind. Helen Keller broke through the barriers that isolated her from participating within her community. She became a writer and an outspoken anti-war advocate. She campaigned for women’s suffrage, labour rights, and socialism. In 1971, she was inducted into the Alabama Women’s Hall of Fame.
Helen Keller embraced life, with its limitations, and experienced the joy of living abundantly and completely.
The writer has spoken: Joy embraces the full spectrum of the human experience.
“Participate joyfully in the sorrows of the world. We cannot cure the world of sorrows, but we can choose to live in joy.”
I always wondered who coined the catchy phrase, “follow your bliss.” The complexity of thought in these three simple words strikes to the core of our being. Most of us have a reasonable understanding of what “following” means. The problem – “bliss” is difficult to describe because of its transitory nature. Everyone has a uniquely personal definition.
Joseph John Campbell, American mythologist, anthropologist, writer, lecturer and the author of that expression, believed it was possible to “follow your bliss.” Indeed, his life is a testament to the truth of that statement. As a child, growing up in White Plains, New York, he became fascinated by First Nation artifacts This fascination transitioned into a life-long passion for mapping the interconnected linkages that exists across the spectrum of mythology and religion. Joseph Campbell acknowledged the inevitability of sorrow and pain in the human experience. Even so, living in joy is a choice.
The scholar has spoken: Joy is our choice.
“Find ecstasy in life; the mere sense of living is joy enough.”
Emily Elizabeth Dickenson lived a quiet, even reclusive life. She was introverted and thought to be eccentric by those in her local community. Yet, her soul was ignited by poetry. She wrote in private, penning nearly eighteen hundred poems, without the need for acclaim or approbation. Less than a dozen of her poems were published during her lifetime; even those were notably altered. Emily Dickenson’s poetry collection was discovered upon her death in 1886 by her younger sister, Lavinia. In 1890, her first collection of poetry, heavily edited, was published. It was not until 1955 that an unaltered version was published and the world finally met the real Emily Dickenson. Today, she is considered to be a major American poet.
If I can stop one heart from breaking,
I shall not live in vain;
If I can ease one life the aching,
Or cool one pain,
Or help one fainting robin
Unto his nest again,
I shall not live in vain.
The poet has spoken: Joy is found in the act of living.
Henry Ward Beecher was a charismatic clergyman, reformer, abolitionist and speaker. Born into a family that was famous for producing social crusaders, he was especially close to his sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe, the writer of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” His other well-known siblings included educators, Catherine Beecher and Reverend Thomas Beecher, and activists Charles Beecher and Isabella Beecher. Henry Ward Beecher was notorious for his preaching style. He campaigned for Women’s suffrage, temperance and Darwin’s theory of evolution. He hated slavery and eschewed bigotry of any kind whether religious, racial or social. Everyone, not only the select few, was entitled to freedom, hope and joy!
“The sun does not shine for a few trees and flowers, but for the wide world’s joy.”
Henry Ward Beecher
The social reformer has spoken: Joy belongs to the entire world.
Plato had many day jobs: philosopher, mathematician and writer. On the side, he happened to be the founder of the Academy in Athens, the first institution of higher learning in the Western world. He had a famous teacher, Socrates, who was always in some sort of trouble. Even today, Plato is copiously quoted and revered as one of the most important founding figures in Western philosophy. His dialogues add depth to questions relating to logic, ethics, rhetoric, and mathematics. Weighty matters, debate fodder.
And yet, Plato’s understanding of joy can be articulated in one sentence:
Love is the joy of the good,
The wonder of the wise,
The amazement of the gods…
Plato (427 – 347 BC)
The joyous message of Christmas came many years later, yet the fundamental nature of joy remains unchanged to this very day. Love is the genesis of joy. Even the wisest of humanity are humbled by the strength of love in action.
The philosopher has spoken: Joy to the world begins with love.
Joy to the world, the Lord is come!
Let earth receive her King;
Let every heart prepare Him room,
And Heaven and nature sing,
And Heaven and nature sing,
And Heaven, and Heaven, and nature sing.
Isaac Watts, based on Psalm 98
Published in 1719
According to my calendar, Christmas is but eight days away and the festivities are well underway. As I look back, Christmas has given me three themes that have stayed with me throughout the years. The first is “Joy to the World.” This week, I want to explore joy as we understand it within the human experience. Joy is closely related to hope and courage, but also finds strength through sorrow and pain.
As we celebrate this joyous season, may we reach out and express the joy of connection.