Joy is a strange emotion to engage with and perhaps even stranger to feel when you are in the midst of also journeying with anxiety. But as I've said before the reality of my anxious life, is that it is not a case of being compartmentalised, of one or the other, of being sick, then being well. All these things are mixed together. And so joy and pain are met together.
Joy is the heart emotion that is perhaps most difficult to take hold of. It comes sometimes from nowhere and disappears like a wisp. As we are approaching Lent I'm reminded of the prayer of committal, prayed at funerals, from psalm 103.
For he knows of what we are made;
he remembers that we are but dust.
Our days are like the grass;
we flourish like a flower of the field;
when the wind goes over it, it is gone
and its place will know it no more.
There is something about joy, about flourishing, which is about being dust. Joy comes from a place which knows ourselves the most deeply, knows our mortality, knows our failings, knows our dustliness. I find myself most joyful in the face of the fleeting reality of ‘me’. When I accept my inconstancy and my total inability to keep myself alive, this is the place of joy, freedom and playfulness.
When I no longer need to worry, or be anxious, about portraying myself as perfect, as impassable, this is the place where the chains come off and I am liberated. My flourishing is dependent on my utter dependence on God for my next breath. Joy is dependent on the capacity of human beings, to be able to die, to let go, to let our self go, to be transformed. The capacity for joy is dependent on our capacity for pain. Joy and pain are met together, life and death kiss each other...
Anxiety is rooted in the part of the brain which protects us from death. It sounds like a good thing in that respect, and it can protect us from being reckless, protect us from a certain kamikaze attitude to our self, perhaps borne out of a self-hatred. This is not what we are invited to, when we are invited to accept death as the gateway to life. In that sense, embracing the capability that we have for death is not a wish to die.
But it is from this place that the anxious heart can work either for or against our flourishing. The mechanism in the brain that deals with anxiety, incites us to fight, flight or freeze. To do whatever we can to avoid pain and death. If I allow myself to be consumed by this urge and to stay with it in a prolonged way, then the purpose and manner of my life becomes the avoidance of death. This is not the way of joy. Joy is not simply the avoidance of pain. The anxious mind can fool us into thinking that this is the case. And sometimes there is a need to do just that, to avoid, in order to take a breath, a step back, regain perspective, or heal. The problem is when this becomes a way of life. The temptation can be strong.
But the anxious mind can also help on the path to joy. Simply because the anxious mind is drawn towards the acknowledgement, if not always the acceptance, of death and of our mortal bones. The anxious mind is often in the best place, then, to make this journey to acceptance of mortality and therefore to the place of freedom from having to 'save our life'. And in this place of freedom, away from living in this defensive way, is the potential for true flourishing and the joy that can only be found in becoming the person God has made us to be. In knowing that we are dust brought to life, and only sustained in that life, by the breath of God, we are released from having to be our own source of life and joy.
Often we, I, am caught up in the idea that I am in control of, or to put it more positively, responsible for, my own happiness. This is what we are taught. You must grasp it for yourself and if you are not happy, then really, it is your own fault. You are the master of your own destiny…or something. But joy is that thing which takes us by surprise, and over which we have no control, it enters our heart through the back door and is often found in the most inconsequential of things. Such as the breath or heartbeat that we are given each moment, neither of which we have any control over.
Perhaps the wisdom of pursuing joy is that it cannot be pursued, controlled, manipulated or manoeuvred. The way to joy is to know our capacity for pain. And as we journey to Lent, to be reminded that we must know Christ in his suffering, so that we may join him in his resurrection.
Maybe I am invited to leave a little nook in my heart for the surprises of God to delight me. To remember that joy is a gift, just as my breath and my heartbeat are gifts. What I have to bring, is to pay attention to those gifts and to be grateful.
REFLECTION - PSALM 103.13,14
As a father has compassion for his children,
so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him.
For he knows how we were made
he remembers that we are dust.
As we head towards Lent, I am reminded why this is, I think, my favourite part of the Church's year. I am at my most liberated on the Ash Wednesdays of my life. Those moments when I am able to receive the ash, real or metaphorical, and hear the words 'remember you are but dust and to dust you will return, turn from sin and be faithful to Christ'.
These are the moments I’m at my most real, where I am freed to say 'I am a sinner' and therefore feel the full force of what it means to receive the grace of God. All the verses in Scripture which speak of us being sinners and the necessity for us to confess our sins, sing in my heart. Because it is in this reality and in the bearing all before God, the nakedness of our heart and soul, that God loves us. Only in the love of God, I am able to return to Christ again, because whilst I am still a sinner, God comes to save me.
And honestly, that brings me joy.