An Ode to Joy

December 15, 2016

Edward “T” McKinley shares a message of joy during Chapel service.

Shattuck-St. Mary’s English Instructor Edward “T” McKinley shared a powerful message on the meaning of joy during Chapel service on Tuesday, December 13.

The winter holidays are an odd time of year. We disrupt our usual schedule, travel, and visit people whether we like them or not. We eat odd foods, sing odd songs, and do our best to be our best – an odd time of year, indeed.

We use odd words, including one in particular: joy. We don’t connect joy to the Fourth of July or Labor Day. For months we have happiness – happy birthdays, happy anniversaries, happy hours. Then, oddly, in winter we set happy aside and look for joy.

Why? Because happiness and joy aren’t the same thing.

Happiness is waves on the ocean, rising, cresting, disappearing into doldrums. Joy is the ocean itself, vast, deep, and definitely here to stay.

Happiness washes over us. Joy fills us up.

Happiness is out there, something to chase. We Americans pursue happiness. In contrast, wherever we find it, joy is something we embrace, hold close in ourselves.

Happiness is feeling. Joy is being.

We used to ask, “What makes us happy?” Happiness manipulates our mood, distracts us from what we felt just a minute ago. Now we ask, “What brings us joy?” Joy is a gift, bestowed without strings, an affirmation of who we have been all along.

So what is it about winter that has us wishing not for happiness but for a deeper, wider, more grounded engagement of joy?

Well, it’s dark. It’s cold. Life has receded and lies frozen under a blanket of snow. We’ve drawn inward and curled around our heart embers, straining to see flickering pinpricks of flame in this long and quiet night. We’re not unhappy, exactly. But it’s a time of introspection, self-evaluation, and even regret. It’s winter, and some of us aren’t as happy as we were just a few months ago.

Simple happiness doesn’t seem to cut it any more. So we look for something more.

Between November and January are dozens of holidays. Imagine that. People of every culture and tradition, in isolation or at the center of the world’s stage, all do something odd this time odd of the year. And we’re all basically doing the same thing: seeking something beyond ourselves and our happiness in the deeper and more grounding oneness of joy.

It’s all about light. Some of us celebrate a lamp that won’t run dry or a child born under a star. Others sail a flotilla of candles in banana-leaf boats or set off fireworks welcoming an exiled king back home. In a thousand ways, we stand in the darkness and rekindle hope, faith, and connection to something deep and sustaining and true. And we are filled with joy.

I’m not often happy, especially this time of year. The cold makes my knees ache. Afternoon looks like midnight. I dread black ice. In a million ways, the world is not how I want it to be. But if I ground myself in joy, I remember the world is as it is, I am exactly where I should be, and we are all one in the light of connection.

I will always wish you happiness. But this winter, I wish you joy. May it lift and sustain us, comfort and strengthen us, and remind us of our true goodness, wholeness, and completeness – even when there isn’t much to be at all happy about at all.

Joy to the world. Joy to you and me.

  • Denise Day Smith