The Great Enemy of Joy

Every day I wake up and read the news. Of course, it's filled with presidential politics these days. But it's also filled with stories of tragic accidents, security breaches, North Korean missile testings, and epic malware attacks across the globe. I've noticed, reading story after story and watching commentary after commentary, that if I'm not careful something can sneak into my soul that threatens to strangle my joy: Cynicism. 

I'm convinced that the great enemy of joy is not sorrow, but rather cynicism. As I wrote last week, sorrow can coexist with joy. I think that's because both sorrow and joy share some of the same basic ingredients: love for someone or something, a recognition of beauty, an experience of delight. The difference between sorrow and joy is whether the beautiful thing, or the person loved, or the experience of delight is present or lost. But cynicism eats at the roots of joy. That happens in part because our cynical selves are nearsighted. They cannot see hope beyond the chaos, beauty beyond the pain, or love mingled with mixed motives. When we live as cynics, we move from being critical to being a walking Critique.

Now, I'm not saying that we should stop being critical or thinking critically about the world around us. Being cynical and being critical are not the same thing. Critique can and often does come from a place of hopefulness, a belief that what is being critiqued can be made better. But a steady diet of critique without celebration is like a steady diet of fiber without protein; whatever good you do consume will tend to run right through you. Your soul won't process it, won't turn it into energy or joy. 

So as this series on cultivating joy continues, I think we need to ask ourselves two very important questions: 

  1. Does my philosophy of life, the great story that makes sense of the world to me, does that, taken to it's logical conclusion, produce cynicism or joy? 
  2. Do my daily habits, rituals, practices, and relationships lend themselves toward cynicism or joy? 

First, how do you know if your philosophy, your story of the world, produces cynicism or joy? Just take a look at the end of your story. An example of a fairly common philosophy of life that, I would suggest, produces cynicism if taken to its logical conclusion is the purely materialist worldview that in essence says, "This life is all you got, and when you die you rot." If that is ultimately true not only of you but also of everyone you've ever loved and respected, and if that is true of the entire world, everything you've ever thought was beautiful, then there is an inherent purposelessness to life that acts of love and decency cannot ultimately ameliorate.

If you believe Death has the final word on all things, ultimately that way of seeing the world is going to filter out so much of your life and joy. This is why for me, as a Christian, the resurrection of Jesus is such an important part of my story. It means that I, and this world, can be resurrected too. The resurrection means that, contrary to the way things sometimes seem, Life has and will have the last word.

Second, do your daily habits, rituals, practices and relationships lend themselves toward cynicism or joy? I'm not saying we need to cut out all late night talk shows or epic dramas that powerfully draw us into the world of an evil character, but is that all you're consuming in your free time? Do any of your Netflix shows have redemptive themes? Do you pause on your walk to work to simply enjoy the flowers in your neighborhood? Do you take the time to ask really good questions of the person in front of you and delight in who they are? Do you conscientiously try to understand someone who frustrates or perplexes you instead of condemning them? Do your daily rituals allow you to delight in the simple things of life: the food you eat, the body you inhabit, the sunshine on your face? Do your practices cultivate cynicism or joy?

I deeply believe we were made to inhabit a life of Joy. In a world that bombards us with tragedy and complexity, it takes intentionality and thoughtfulness to cultivate stories of joy and rituals of celebration. But believe me, it's worth it. 



*Photo by The Conmunity on Flickr via Creative Commons