How am I to write about joy at this specific moment on our grief-ridden planet? While Ukrainians are still under bombardment and Gaza is going up in flames? While so many are being made orphans and widows and worse?
Cole Arthur Riley, the author of the luminous “This Here Flesh,” writes that joy is a central part of her spirituality — and something we need in the long struggle for liberation. I wholeheartedly agree. I love that Riley says we can “make space for a sorrowful joy,” a joy “born not of laughter but of peace.”
I happen to live with daily anxiety and somewhat chronic depression. My doomsday tendencies and my fretful angst are normally kind of a background hum in my mind, but sometimes they flare up.
It’s not just the turmoil around the world — there’s injustice in our country, trouble in our churches and gutting heartache in our own homes. So many things right now feel laden with sorrow. So many of us are just barely hanging on. Our hearts are breaking, and by the look of things, it seems they will continue to break.
When we’re pushing through a long, joyless night, it’s OK for us to weep and wail. We don’t have to compare our suffering with others’ greater suffering. Our own pain is as real as any. And Christ is with us in it.
Last November, a particularly oppressive-feeling depression took hold of me. I was dealing with some personal challenges at the time, but this depression brought on a leaden despair that surpassed anything one might expect from the circumstances. The familiar grim thoughts grew ever grimmer, and the weariness wouldn’t lift. An undercurrent of sadness swelled and started dragging me under.
I pushed and plodded through the days in that all-too-familiar fight. And then one day, after a couple of weeks or so, I realized that the intense heaviness had let up, though I hadn’t noticed exactly when. I was feeling lighter.
I didn’t share the intensity of what I was going through with anyone until after the peak of despair had passed. Once it lifted, I was so grateful I couldn’t keep it to myself. I felt a bit like the woman in the parable who’d found her lost coin and went telling all her neighbors.
“Friends, I was drowning, but I feel like I can breathe again! Rejoice with me — I’d lost my appetite for life, but now it’s back.”
That’s how it is sometimes, and we can celebrate these graces, the little joys, wherever we are. Anyone who has lived with depression knows that it’s truly good news when you find you’ve come through to the other side. It feels like no small miracle. Even if relief isn’t complete, the piercing through of a little more air and light is a gift, a kind of resurrection.
When I told some of my closest friends what had happened, they shared in my gratitude, and my own joy was amplified by the sweetness of sacred community. I continue to be amazed that I have such beautiful, big-hearted people in my life, people who welcome every part of me, my Eeyore-ish nature, emotional tsunamis and all.
I used to feel guilty every time I got depressed. But shame makes things worse. Some measure of desolation is just part of being human, not a sign that we are flawed. When we’re feeling desolate, we’re allowed to count just getting through the day as a grace and a win.
Sometimes we need to cultivate joy on purpose. It helps to embrace a softer posture, to be gentler with ourselves and forgive the world for being the glorious and horribly unfair mess that it is. It’s one way to keep our hearts from turning brittle from all the breaking.
It also helps to reach out and connect, to let ourselves lean on community. How else will we get through all of this? It’s together that we can find joy as we try to do the hard things. I don’t have to be alone in my pain. And you don’t have to be alone in yours. We can be together in our aloneness.
All is not right with the world — far from it. Yet here we are. We have made it through another night. We hold the joy and the sorrow together.
I savor my morning cup of hot coffee, sweetened just right with milk and honey. I see the thriving pothos plants on the kitchen windowsill and the tiny succulents that sprouted whole from broken leaves. I relish our dog’s soft cuddles and feisty mischief. Today, my body is healthy enough for me to hike through the hills in my neighborhood.
And I’m grateful for my portion of comfort and joy.