People keep telling me that the world is worse than it used to be - not just those of my friends who run towards the progressive side of the political and religious spectrum, but those who reside on the conservative side, as well. One and all, they are concerned about the direction of our country, most complaining that we do not listen to each other. Without falling deep into this rabbit trail, I should like to observe what is perhaps most obvious, that we who complain about our conversational intransigence are often the ones who are most entrenched. Not listening to the heart of the other. Or, to quote Pogo, We have met the enemy, and he is us.
There have been other periods during our national and church history that were worse, or at least the same. We are legatees of a brutal Civil War, and I for one remember clearly the Vietnam War with young men as soldiers who never came home. Maybe you remember double-digit inflation and interest rates, not to mention Watergate and Howard Baker’s famous, yet necessary, question - the one that nobody seems to ask these days - What did he know, and when did he know it? A politician seeking truth. What about religious people seeking truth?
Really, though, I am thinking in spiritual terms today, not political or ecclesiastical terms. The best of times, the worst of times, or vice versa, and life (as it happens) is just that: life. I often wonder whether we have unrealistic expectations of our national government. Is it government’s job to make us happy? Is government to blame for a person’s bad health, bad prospects or familial dysfunction?
I once heard that both the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu giggle - or in Tutu’s case, he did so while he was alive. Like children. The two of them even coauthored a book on joy - The Book of Joy - as though they were experts, these two gigglers. Joy, and doesn’t Paul classify joy as a fruit of the Spirit? Joy is that thing that wells-up from deep within, like a child’s giggling unfiltered by life’s complexities, so pure. How can we as adults live beyond life’s complexities to live so deeply?
Henri Nouwen once wrote that “[t]he greatest challenge of faith is to be surprised by joy.” Really? The greatest challenge? I might have thought the greatest challenge of faith was to move mountains, or to really believe (rather than nominally believe) - as in, with one’s whole being. No, to be surprised by joy, and there I am, wrong once again.
Nouwen told a story of attending a dinner party during which friends complained in chorus about the economic state of the country, tossing out statistics that felt overwhelming to them all. Suddenly, a four year-old ran into the room, up to his father, and exclaimed, “Look, Daddy! Look! I found [this] little kitten in the yard … Look! … Isn’t she cute?” At that, everything changed. The joy and the child and the kitten became the focus of the room. Became the feel of the room.
Joy, and I was watching a group of children in a family restaurant the other day. The children had been set loose like calfs from stalls, running about wildly. The tiniest of them, maybe two years-old, stopped to ask her mom for more potato chips. Instead of going into the cafeteria, twenty feet away, to buy chips, the mom sent the little one holding the hand of her older brother - who was perhaps three - to buy the chips. The two of them returned several minutes later with Doritos in-hand, fully purchased, when all the while I kept thinking about the impossibility and irresponsibility of it all. I wouldn’t have sent my two and three year-olds alone to buy anything! And yet, the children so filled with joy at life, restored my heart to innocence, and I, too, became filled with joy. Joy - at the parents, at the children, and most of all at this wonder-filled world in which I find myself, lucky enough not just to be alive, but to feel this amazing connection to a wider universe - a connection that exists somewhere deep in the belly of my soul. God is there, where there is joy.
Anxiety, you see, is life in pretend.