Devouring Joy

If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy,
don’t hesitate. Give in to it. There are plenty
of lives and whole towns destroyed or about
to be. We are not wise, and not very often
kind. And much can never be redeemed.
Still, life has some possibility left. Perhaps this
is it’s way of fighting back, that sometimes
something happens better than all the riches
or power in the world. It could be anything,
but very often you notice it in the instant
when love begins. Anyway, that’s often the
case. Anyway, whatever it is, don’t be afraid
of its plenty. Joy isn’t meant to be a crumb.

—”Don’t Hesitate,” Mary Oliver

I read Ms. Oliver’s poem in early January, at the end of a bleak Michigan-winter week that had been punctuated by even bleaker moments in our collective national experience. The attack on the Capitol and events that followed led to commentaries aplenty, overflowing sadness, and abundant outrage as unbelievable horrors emerged one after another.

The melancholic, angry despair that undergirded the week’s mood was matched by the heavy gray of January. Ending the week under this cloud, I woke on Saturday morning to rare and brilliant sunshine. A blanket of white snow shimmered as matte-black trees reached leafless, craggy arms toward the vivid cerulean sky in greedy grasp of all the vitality that could be absorbed. I felt a desperate need to join them. The beauty and surprise of the dazzling morning compelled me outside. As the slap of frigid air met me, bold chatter from Caution and Guilt attempted to convince me that the crumbs of this gift were enough—because 18 degrees is cold, there is ice on the sidewalks, unmasked people to encounter, and inevitable discomfort as toes ached with cold. And could I? When so much was awry in the world—could I, in good conscience, consume this moment of joy when there was so much to do to address the pain of so many? Could I enjoy this gift?

Pushing the gate open, I tucked the weariness of the week, dimmed the chatter of Caution and Guilt, and set aside my tasks so I could absorb the vibrant moment. Turning my face toward the sunshine, I reached craggy, winter-weary arms toward the brilliant blue sky. I gave in to joy.  

The beauty of white snow, brilliant blue skies, leafless trees, red berries, scarlet cardinals, barking dogs, busy squirrels gave witness to a God who delights in our joy—even in the bedlam of our days. Maybe, especially in the bedlam. I was buoyed by the suggestion of Ms. Oliver: that this too was a way of fighting back. That joy’s punctuation marks provide an em-dash to our narrative—holiness amidst all that is not holy. The love of God in the middle of our pain.

It could be anything,
but very often you notice it in the instant
when love begins. Anyway, that’s often the
case. Anyway, whatever it is, don’t be afraid
of its plenty. Joy isn’t meant to be a crumb.

It is true that there is much to do.  We have been wrong and we have been wronged. It will take arduous effort and much time to fix systems, turn attitudes, and open eyes; to learn to love as Jesus loves, to forgive as Jesus forgave. And truly, there may be things that cannot be redeemed at all—simply carved out and excised.  Yet, when a bowlful of joy is presented—through a ray of sunshine, a child’s giggle, a friend’s smile, an accomplished task, a playful puppy, or the sure knowledge of your Creator’s love—don’t nibble crumbs. Give in. Grab the bowl. Devour joy. Celebrate its plenty. It is your sustenance. Joy is not denial. It is not a Pollyanna-sidestep.  It is a way of fighting back against the bedlam of despair.

I returned from my walk. Renewed, strengthened, clear-headed, and ready to resume the work that lies ahead. Joy had pulled me up and out, raising strong, willing arms to the brilliant heavens. Joy was ready to fight back.

Jill English is an avid encourager of humans and lover of words. She is most at home out-of-doors, and in particular, while walking any beach. Her most magical moments involve being Grammy to two remarkable grandchildren, and Mom to their lucky parents. As a discerner of call in higher theological education, her favorite conversations involve connecting the sacred dots of everyday life and faith. Jill lives in Grand Rapids, MI with two small, elderly pups.