An unintentional theme has appeared in this space for exploring sacred practices over the past few weeks. Such practices as Acceptance and Radical Gratitude, and, at least in its ultimate goals, Mindfulness Meditation, are all about how we relate to what is. This week’s practice carries on this same theme: it is the practice of joy, or, rather Serendipity, an experience of spontaneous or unexpected joy.
“Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I will say, rejoice!” (Phil 4.4).
Despite its reputation as being dour and unfun, Christianity takes joy seriously. Not only do our Scriptures command us to be joyful, as Paul does above, but joy is consistently — throughout both the Hebrew and Christians Bibles — seen as a sign of the presence of God. Isaiah’s prophecy of a time of God’s abundant favour describes it, “For you shall go out with joy, And be led out with peace; The mountains and the hills Shall break forth into singing before you, And all the trees of the field shall clap their hands” (55.12). The Psalms mention joy or rejoicing over one hundred times. In the Gospels, encounters with Jesus are often said to result in joy; and at one point, Jesus says to his disciples, “These things I have spoken to you, that My joy may remain in you, and that your joy may be full” (John 15.11). And, joy is of course also listed among the fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5.22). I could go on, but I think I’ve made the point. Joy is an important, non-negotiable part of the Good News we Christians are called to live out.
Yet, life is full of inconveniences, major and minor, things that slowly erode our joy. The point of this week’s practice is to push back against this attrition, not seeing joy as a default or otherwise passive state we could experience if only things we different, but as fruit that we can indeed work to cultivate in our day-to-day life.
What is it?
This week’s practice is to look for joy in every-day circumstances, and to revel in it when it’s found.
With an intentionally joyful practice, it’s no surprise this turned out to be a joyful week. But it was an interesting week in which to focus on joy and the unexpected places I might find it. Sunday I had plans fall through; but also experienced the rare joy of getting into a flow state with writing. Monday saw bittersweet goodbye celebrations for two colleagues at work, but this week’s sacred practice reminded me to focus on the sweet parts. Tuesday, I was feeling bored and disconnected, but also went on a spontaneous coffee date. Wednesday was a very frustrating day, but this practice reminded me of the joy I have in my relationships with my colleagues. The biggest challenge came Wednesday night, when a brief but strong storm knocked out my electricity (as it turns out for 22 hours, as a large tree broke a power pole in my neighborhood) just a couple minutes after I had started a load of laundry. Even as I was carrying a tub full of sopping wet, sudsy, yet still dirty clothing up five flights of stairs in the pitch black, holding my phone in flashlight mode between my teeth for illumination, I couldn’t help but chuckle at how ridiculous the situation was. Thursday, I turned the lemons of having no electricity (which also meant no internet or hot water and a fridge full of spoiled food) into the lemonade of running to work and showering at the gym there. (I also enjoyed telling the story of the previous night’s laundry adventures.) And the rest of the week continued in a similar fashion.
And so despite the fact that the week was filled with disruptions, transitions and frustrations, it was also filled with special interactions with colleagues and friends, good books, beautiful weather, and the wonders of nature. The most interesting thing I noticed about this practice is that it didn’t actually involve me doing or even noticing anything different from what I normally do. But it was a beautiful excuse to linger in those special moments before moving on to whatever came next.
I’ve done some coaching training and lots of reading in the field of human happiness, engagement, and productivity, and one of the most useful questions I have encountered in that space is “What else can I enjoy right now?” It’s a deceptively simple question. What makes it sneaky is that little word ‘else’ — the question assumes I am already aware of having some enjoyment, but it equally assumes there are more things I could enjoy of which I’m not yet aware; and so it pushes me towards creativity in my thinking and attitudes. In its own way, this practice of finding joy in unexpected places accomplished something similar, allowing me to stay with the joyful parts of everyday life and pushing me towards the opportunities for serendipity that are always presenting themselves.
And I think this is important. I used to pride myself in being a realist — being neither an optimist nor a pessimist, but realistically judging the potential risks and threats, and rewards and opportunities in a given situation. Imagine my shock when I stumbled across the concept of depressive realism, which is the idea that in at least certain situations, depressed people actually have a more accurate perception of reality than non-depressed people. Even recognizing that this is a controversial concept, it nonetheless gave me pause. Even if it’s just fractionally true, priding oneself being a realist could be a big problem. And it makes sense in a way: most new businesses fail, most books go unpublished, most research projects go unfunded. Taking the most realistic approach would seriously limit creativity and ambition. And so, I think those of us who are predisposed towards realism can do well to push ourselves towards possibility and joy whenever possible.
But again, all things in moderation. My reservation about this practice is the same as the one I had the other week for the Radical Gratitude practice. There I wrote, “the last thing I want to do is encourage any kind of falsehood or disingenuous happy mask in the spiritual life. We need the freedom to acknowledge the negative impacts of circumstances even as it’s good and healthy to find ways of being grateful [or joyful] within them.” The fact is life has a lot of pain in it, and while it’s important to lean into joy as much as possible, that pain still needs to be acknowledged and voiced. As important is it is to be able to say “Rejoice in the Lord always!” we also have to say yes to “Out of the depths I have cried to you, O Lord!”
Provided we have the space to do both, then I really love this practice of reveling in the good and joyful.