Does Being Joyful Mean I Can't be Sad?
The other day on my public Facebook page, I posted a link to Pope Francis's off-the-cuff injunction against "sadness" among seminarians and novices. Most of the commenters found it, as I did, delightfully refreshing, but some thought that the Pope was either (a) belittling mental illness, or (b) saying that Christians should never be sad. But the Pope was, as I see it, saying neither of those two things. Rather, he was referring to the overly serious, dreadfully morose, "frozen chosen" attitude that sometimes characterizes the professionally religious. But the question "Does being joyful mean I can't be sad?" is a common one, in fact the most common one I am asked when speaking on joy to Catholic audiences. To that end, here's a little meditation on that question. (It's from my book Between Heaven and Mirth, from a chapter that specifically addresses the most commonly asked questions about joy.)
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Does being joyful mean that I’m supposed to be happy all the time?
This is something I would like to underline, since it is a concept that is particularly important to understand in a book on joy. Sadness is a natural response to pain, suffering and tragedy in life. It is human, natural and even, in a way, desirable: sadness in response to a tragic event shows that you are emotionally alive. If you weren't sad from time to time, you would be something less than human. William A. Barry, S.J., the Jesuit priest and clinical psychologist, echoes this. “If you’re not saddened by certain things, you’re not normal—for example, when a loved one dies, or in response to natural disasters. Sadness is part of life.”
And while we’ve discussed, for example, the possibility that Jesus smiled and laughed, the New Testament tells us outright—without our having to read between the lines--which Jesus broke down in tears after the death of one of his friends. When Lazarus, the brother of his friends Mary and Martha died after a brief illness, Jesus traveled to the tomb, and in some translations, in one of the simplest and shortest Gospel versus we are told, "Jesus began to weep." (Jn. 11:1-44)
Jesus’s weeping is seen as proof of his compassion. Of his humanity. “See how he loved him!” say those in the crowd. If Jesus was sad surely we can be sad.
Also, the notion that you must be cheerful at all times in order to demonstrate belief in God is ridiculous. But it is common. “Get out of the tomb!” one otherwise well-meaning told me when I told her that I was sad over my father’s death. “Aren’t you a believer?” (She was referring to the idea of preferring death over resurrection.) But even the saints, those avatars of belief, grew sad from time to time. Like Jesus, they were occasionally sad because they were human.
Nor do I believe in what’s known as the "Prosperity Gospel," which tells people that if they believe in Jesus Christ, their lives will be one of constant success.
This is demonstrably false. The twelve apostles believed in Christ, to take one obvious example, and many of them met with difficult, painful, even tragic ends. Does anyone think that St. Peter, who was crucified, had insufficient faith? The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., one of the great religious figures of our time, suffered greatly, was jailed and was assassinated. Did he not have sufficient faith? Mother Teresa, toward the end of her life, was often in terrible physical pain. She even suffered from a great interior darkness, a “dark night of the soul.” Was she unfaithful? Suffering—interior and exterior--is the lot of all people, including believers, including devout believers, and including those who strive to lead joyful lives.
While the Prosperity Gospel has a number of important highlights—its focus on joy is a needed corrective in many Christian circles; its emphasis rock-ribbed faith in God is essential; its encouragement to believe in a God who desires your ultimate joy is an antidote to so many terrifying images of God—its denial of suffering means that it doesn’t fully embrace the human condition. This may be one reason why so many of its adherents shy away from Good Friday services.
Nor do I believe that people encounter suffering or illnesses have somehow failed to “think positively.” Barbara Ehrenreich (author of Dancing in the Streets) takes aim at that idea in her piquant book Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America. While it is often helpful to look on the bright side of life, and salutary to strive to be cheerful, the belief that the sick have failed to “think positively,” is monstrous. Such a belief finds its ultimate end in the notion that cancer patients, to take but one example, are somehow "responsible" for their illness, because of their faulty thinking patterns. That approach can compound the misery of the sick. Ehrenreich, a cancer survivor herself, writes, “Clearly, the failure to think positively can weigh on a cancer patient like a second disease.”
Illness isn’t a moral fault or a failure of will. Illness is simply a reflection of our humanity.
On the other hand, a culture of carping and general complaining predominates in some quarters. (I’ll leave it up to social critics to ascertain why.) Everyone knows someone who seems to be a champion complainer, always lamenting some new fate that has just befallen him, complaining endlessly about his latest malady, reminding you about the next terrible turn of events that he is sure will happen, and in general worrying everyone around him. Typically these people are rather self-centered. And typically they are unpleasant to be around. I used to know someone who was a full-time hypochondriac (something I am prone too.) You knew better than to ask, “How are you?” lest you find out, in numbing detail, his latest scourge.
One of my friends describes it as searching for the drop of red paint in a can of white paint. It's a powerful image: the red represents your one problem. You have an entire can of white paint—let's say, a job, a roof over your head, a loving family, and you choose instead to concentrate on the one tiny red drop--the one thing wrong in your life. Suddenly the whole can turns red: that’s all you can see.
That is where choice comes into play. Sometimes, when presented with the mixed bag of life, we can choose to focus on what makes us happy, what more readily connects us to joy in our life.
The form of psychotherapy called cognitive behavioral therapy, is also helpful here. As I understand it, this school of psychology starts from the assumption that since our thoughts shape our experience of the world, unhealthy and inaccurate thinking can lead to incorrect evaluation of one's life, and therefore to unhappiness.
For example, if you're the type of person who thinks you're "always" facing some sort of misfortune, when in reality your life is a mixed bad of good and bad, you might end up miserable—not because of your situation, but because of the way you think about it. Once again, I’m not speaking here of a person in the midst of a great tragedy or experiencing real pain. Nor am I denying the occasional need for psychotherapy or counseling to deal with serious psychological problems or depression. Rather, I’m speaking about the person who chooses to focus only on the negative side of life despite the preponderance of evidence for the positive.
What are the signs that one is doing this? “Global” words are one tip-off. “I never get what I want!” “I’m always sick!” “Everyone hates me!” “I’m the only one who has it this bad!” “No one ever calls me!” “My boss always picks on me!” Those are tip-offs that you’re probably not thinking as clearly as you should.
For some, it can be as simple as deciding, hard as it may be, to focus more frequently on the positive aspects of life. For others, visiting a counselor or therapist will enable them to see things more clearly. But, once again, this does not mean that tragedy will never happen, or that you will never be sad. It simply means a more realistic look at one’s blessings in life.
A few years ago, for example, I was lamenting to my spiritual director how difficult my life was. So many struggles! So much work to do! So many physical difficulties! So many problems in relationships! And on and on. I told him that I had expressed all of this with God in prayer and it just made me sad.
“Are you being honest with God?" he asked.
“Of course I am,” I said. “I’m sharing all of my difficulties with God.”
“Ah,” he said. “But honesty means being truly honest with God about reality. Are you looking at the totality of your life? Both the good and the bad? Are you honestly presenting your whole life to God, or focusing exclusively on the problems?” That helped me to see how negative I was being, in my prayer and in my life.
So the believer must navigate between a grinning, idiotic, false happiness and carping, caterwauling, complaining mopiness. (Notice again that I’m also not speaking of clinical depression here, which more of a psychological issue.) Overall, the believer will be happy and sad at different points of his life; but joy is possible in the midst of tragedy, since joy depends on one's faith and confidence in God.
To that end, one of my quotes about religion comes from the Scottish philosopher John Macmurray, who contrasted “illusory” religion with “real religion.”
The maxim of illusory religion is: “Fear not; trust in God and He will see that none of the things you fear will happen to you.”
Real religion, said Macmurray, has a different maxim: “Fear not; the things that you are afraid of are quite likely to happen to you, but they are nothing to be afraid of.”
Macmurray’s sage observation illustrates the contrast between deep down joy and evanescent happiness.
Joy can even creep into our lives and catch us unawares, in the midst of dark times. Kathleen Norris, the spiritual writer, told me that while visiting her sister in a hospital joy crept in. “I was anxiously watching an oxygen monitor and my sister's hospital room, when a janitor came in with a month. In a low voice, barely perceptible, she was singing a song I recognized, a love song from a Broadway musical. I commented on it, she began to sing louder, in a voice more enthusiastic and polished. But small matter. By the time she left the room, my sister and I have been treated to three songs, and a significant portion of her life story. Joy is powerful medicine.” Norris concluded, “I am convinced that joy is a fruit, because it tastes so sweet.” And that’s a wonderful way of understanding St. Paul’s listing of joy as among the “fruits” of the Holy Spirit.
Likewise, a person in a difficult situation can still find humor in his or her life and still laugh. Moreover, he can choose to be cheerful around others, not in a masochistic way but rather as a way of not unduly burdening everyone with your latest complaint. This is not to say that one should never talk about one’s struggles or burdens with anyone. As St. Paul would say, “By no means!” It's important during times of struggle to speak to a close friend, family member, a priest or minister, or a therapist, things are very difficult. And it’s important to share those struggles with God in prayer.
What I'm arguing against is the kind of round-the-clock complaining that many people -- including me at times—sometimes engage in.
Lately, I've been trying to be more silent about some of my struggles, that is, not sharing too many personal burdens with people whose lives are already difficult. Once again, this is not to say that I don't share my struggles with my friends, my spiritual director, or with God in prayer. Rather, it is a kind of gift to give people your cheerfulness even in the midst of pain. This may be something of what Mother Teresa said, “Every time you smile at someone, it is an action of love, a gift to that person, a beautiful thing.”
The ability to do that comes from a deep-down sense of joy even in the midst of pain.
James T. Keane
James T. Keane, Sam Sawyer, S.J.
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