Just Keep Watching

As we plug into the news every morning, we are often overwhelmed with how much sorrow there is in our world. Sorrow is the word Paul Tillich uses as the opposite of joy. I’ve been thinking a lot about joy, but as we look around, it’s fair to ask where is the joy? And then there is this: Are we actually choosing sorrow instead of joy? Or are we just not watching for the joy that lies all around us? Perhaps what we need is to change our angle of vision in order to see the joy that gestures for us to enter in.

In a recent post I mentioned Paul Tillich’s contention that joy lies at the very heart of what it means to be human. It is the shape of the world God has created. It is our essential identity. When joy is taken from us—through loss or betrayal or pain or even boredom—or when we deprive ourselves by looking in the wrong places, by making bad choices, by focusing too much on ourselves—we find ourselves residing in the murky shadows of sorrow. Sometimes we desperately need to be reminded that joy lies ready, like grace, to enter our lives.

As I was thinking about all of this, I was reminded of a scene I read a long time ago, from Wendell Berry’s Long-Legged House (this passage is also quoted in Christian Wiman’s marvelous Joy: 100 Poems). The scene begins with Berry relaxing in the peacefulness of a summer evening on his beloved Kentucky farm. Berry is a master at peacefulness. But suddenly here, he spots something dazzling, breathtaking, playing out across the horizon, something, he concludes, deeper than peacefulness. It is sheer, unexpected joy, flaming out across his vision.

I sat one summer evening and watched a great blue heron make his descent from the top of the hill into the valley. He came down at a measured deliberate pace, stately as always, like a dignitary going down a stair. And then, at a point I judged to be midway over the river, without at all varying his wingbeat he did a backward turn in the air, a loop-the-loop. It could only have been a gesture of pure exuberance, of joy—a speaking of his sense of the evening, the day’s fulfillment, his descent homeward. . . . The movement was incredibly beautiful, at once exultant and stately, a benediction on the evening and on the river and on me. It seemed so perfectly to confirm the presence of a free nonhuman joy in the world—a joy I feel a great need to believe in—that I had the skeptic’s impulse to doubt that I had seen it. If I had, I thought, it would be a sign of the presence of something heavenly in the earth. And then, one evening a year later, I saw it again.

As a devoted urban person, I have much to learn about such peacefulness. But really, this is something different. There is this pure exuberance of a great blue heron doing a totally unrequired flip in the air. What for? Well, apparently, just for the joy of it! For Berry, and for me, joy seems woven into the world, the sign of “something heavenly in the earth.” It seems inherent, characteristic, profoundly part of everything. Surely we too are created for this joy.

Has the world gone joyless? Sometimes I think so—so much anger and hate, lying and accusing, distorting and dividing. Perhaps so much disappointment, frustration, loss, betrayal in our own lives. There’s so much sorrow spread around.

But then I am reminded—in reading someone like Wendell Berry, or perhaps spending a long evening talking around the dinner table, or perhaps watching the sun cast its early light even across my small patio, or perhaps reading the Psalms early in the morning in my prayer chair—well, then, joy springs out, comes to reign again, even if for a moment. In that moment of joy, sorrow is tamed, replaced, overcome. It may not last long, but it’s there. That’s the promise. Joy is a gift of goodness. Just keep watching.