Tuesday, April 8, 2008

I've Got the Joy, Joy, Joy, Joy.

Now that I have a daughter of my own, I've started hearing this half-remembered childhood song around my house. "I've got the joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart", followed by the somewhat speedier "I've got the peace that passes understanding down in my heart," and then the tongue-twisting "I've got the wonderful love of my blessed Redeemer way down in the depths of my heart." It's a fun, bouncy song, and like so many other camp and Sunday School songs, it gets the blood moving and teaches a Bible verse or two in the midst of the giggles.

I am coming to believe that the grown-up version of that is somewhat less innocuous. The happy shiny image of the perfect Christian flourished in my church community in the eighties and early nineties, exemplified by the former touring choir members who gravitated to the music program at my church. I suspect that their near-clones could have been found at many evangelical churches in that time period -- the women with their highlighted hair combed and sprayed just so, their floral brocade dresses coordinating with their husbands' patterned ties, and the blinding smiles of those who have the joy of the Lord (and also a stable income, good dental work, and friends just like them).

The next decade saw a shift as the church began to catch up with the postmodern world outside its doors, and the women started to look a little more sophisticated and businesslike, the men more likely to learn the electric guitar than to sing in a gospel quartet. The grins stayed the same on Sunday morning, but in private Bible studies and at the ladies' retreats, tears and self-disclosure became the norm -- all the angst of, you know, just being sad and stuff, and sometimes not knowing what the Lord wanted you to do and it's just so hard! But we just know he's with us, and that brings us such peace, just in time for the Kleenex box to run out at the end of the hour.

Then AA hit the church, or its sanctified 12-step equivalent. I went for a while, and in this subculture of the church, getting it all out there was the name of the game. There were tears and epiphanies, and I think that for some of these people, it was a much-needed bridge being built between the religious community and their legitimate needs. But I am equally sure that some just liked the idea of being able to come every week, fill out the notebook, sing the songs, and get the payoff of a few moments of emotional ecstasy.

Maybe it's just my church. Maybe it's just the filter I'm seeing it through, and that's a strong possibility. But it seems like the last few years I was there, more and more people were getting tired of smiling all the time. I know I was. I lost the ability to find that joy, and I got tired of "joy" being redefined down to an act of will, not an actual emotional response. Maybe you can decide to be joyful, and maybe joy is just the determination to trust God to get you through the hard times. But I'm not really convinced of that. The end result of that redefinition was the nagging sense of guilt about being unhappy, because apparently I didn't have enough faith to be happy. I had too many questions, too many griefs, to be content with the willful ignorance that religious happiness seemed to require.

The problem is that I have yet to find a secular answer I can live with. An acquaintance who pours his energy into living out the sixties' philosophy of "If it feels good, do it" is a functional alcoholic and deeply in debt. A friend who attempted to find her sole happiness in her children became reclusive and imbalanced, paying the price in her marriage and her friendships. An aggressively agnostic acquaintance nearly quivers with anger at his Christian upbringing, decades after leaving the faith. None of these avenues are especially appealing after watching their outcomes.

I don't have enough money to be an epicurean. I'm too busy to be a mystic. I like my stuff too much to be a communist. I'm too pigheaded to be a determinist. I have two kids, which pretty well rules out hedonism. I'm too steeped in religion to be a full-on naturalist. I'm too pessimistic to be a utopian. I know too many jerks to be a committed humanist. I understand the appeal of existentialism, but as an avenue to joy? I can't see it.

I see flashes of it here and there, in the usual trite forms -- laughing children, sunrises, raindrops on roses. I see it occasionally in somewhat less orthodox places -- the emerging muscles in my legs as I become a stronger runner, the warm tingle of a sip of good-quality whiskey, a perfectly timed bit of sarcastic repartee. I'm not looking for the proverbial mountaintop experience, a lifelong runner's high, a constant buzz. But it seems like somewhere, somehow, there must be a way to wade through the darkness inherent to our human state and find some consistent hope. Even if we are up to our knees in despair and history and pain, somewhere there must be fresh air.

I want more. I just don't know any more where to look.

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