How can I be joyful?

| Father Michael Schmitz | January 10, 2019 | 0 Comments
Depression Joy

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Q. This time of the year is difficult for me. I have so much uncertainty and pain in my life, and the holidays often only remind me of my suffering and loneliness. How can a person actually have joy in a world like this?

A. Thank you for your question. While I don’t know your circumstances, from your email, it sounds like you have gone through a lot of suffering. In addition, the holidays can amplify feelings of loneliness and isolation like almost nothing else.

That is nothing to dismiss, and it is important that you hear that you are not alone in your experience or your pain. This is one of the reasons I wanted to write this response in a more public forum. There are many people who share your experience and do not know what to do in the midst of it. Into this reality the Church breaks in and tells us to “rejoice”! How in the world can we be happy in a world of such brokenness?

First, for too long, we have been told that happiness is essentially the absence of sorrow and pain. To pursue this version of happiness would be to pursue smoke; it is a mirage. If this is what happiness is, then happiness would be, by its very nature, illusory, fleeting and conditional. It wouldn’t be centered on anything real but on the absence of something real. It would be fleeting, because we all know that time continues to roll on, and life continues to change. If happiness were based on the lack of pain, it would be the most tenuous and most foolish of things to attempt to cling to. It would be conditional because happiness would be based on how a person feels, and there are few things more conditional than emotions.

Further, a study out of the University of California-Berkeley determined that most Americans have to learn how to be happy. Apparently, most people will define happiness as a feeling of euphoria. We foolishly center happiness on ourselves. How I am feeling determines my level of happiness. And yet, the more people are preoccupied with their feelings, the less enjoyable those particular moments become. Because of this, we need to unlearn that bad habit and intentionally move away from “happiness as feeling good.”

We wouldn’t be the first. Roughly 2,000 years ago, some ancient Greek philosophers asserted that to be happy was not merely to feel good but to be good. The happy person was the one who chose the good and thus became good. Happiness was present if a person was virtuous, and it was absent in a person who lacked virtue. The happy person could be the person who engaged the (worthy) battle of life well.

While this perspective is a step in the right direction, it still remained incomplete. Christianity added quite a bit to it. While we Christians would support the notion that the virtuous life is the truly happy life, there is something more that Christianity brought to the world: joy. In fact, Catholic convert and author G.K. Chesterton once noted that “joy is the gigantic secret of the Christian.” True joy is why martyrs could die with joy. True joy is why St. Paul can command Christians to “rejoice always.” Because true joy is not illusory or conditional. True joy is based on a foundation outside of the individual. I once heard joy defined in this way: It is the abiding and pervasive sense of well-being.

Joy is the abiding and pervasive sense of well-being.

This is why joy is the secret of the Christian. This world is uncertain and painful, yet we know that God is present. While there is real suffering and loneliness, we know that God knows your name. We know that he loves you (to the point of death). We know that he has allowed uncertainty and suffering and death to overwhelm him so that he could conquer and transform them into something redemptive. Therefore, there can be joy in the midst of uncertainty, suffering and even death.

If you would like evidence of this, simply consider the “Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary.” While we refer to them as joyful, if you or I were living them, we might consider renaming them. In the first mystery, the Annunciation, the angel Gabriel announced that Mary would be the mother of the Messiah. Mary says, “Let it be done unto me,” and the next line reads, “Then the angel departed from her.” Are you kidding? Talk about uncertainty! The second mystery is the Visitation, where a pregnant Mary travels days and days to visit Elizabeth. She has no guarantee that she will be able to make the trek and return home safely. The third mystery, the Nativity, is even worse: Mary and Joseph have to make due in a stable and lay their newborn child in a feeding trough while the local king is actively trying to kill him. Each of the Joyful Mysteries is marked with uncertainty, suffering and loss.

And yet, they are also marked by joy. Because God is real and he is present and active. Because of this, every Christian can choose joy, no matter his or her circumstances.

Father Schmitz is director of youth and young adult ministry for the Diocese of Duluth and chaplain of the Newman Center at the University of Minnesota Duluth. Reach him at fathermikeschmitz@gmail.com.

Editor’s note: If you or someone you know is experiencing a loss of joy due to depression or anxiety, please seek professional help and spiritual guidance.

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Category: Ask Father Mike