On Joy

Joy and thriving are not the journey but the destination. According to Archbishop Desmund Tutu, “if you set out to be joyful you're not going to be joyful”. Joy happens when we follow patterns adapted from virtues and live in attunement with people and in harmony with the greater world.

The Dali Lama and Desmond Tutu identified eight pillars to help us live lives of Joy.

The first pillar is perspective.  The Dali Lama said, “pain is inevitable suffering is optional.” If suffering is optional, so is joy. If we can create a worldview of suffering, then, with a little work, we can create a worldview of joy.  Edith Eva Egger tells the story of visiting two soldiers on the same day at Fort Bliss. Both were paraplegic, having lost their legs in combat. They had the same diagnosis and the same prognosis. The first veteran, Tom, was lying on his bed in the fetal position, railing against life and crying. The second, Chuck, was out of bed in his wheelchair, explaining that he felt as if he had been given a second chance in life. As he was wheeled through the garden, he had realized that he was closer the flowers and about the right height to look directly into his children's eyes. Victor Frankl said, “our perspective towards life is our final and ultimate freedom.”

The second pillar is to cultivate humility. Humility is not in opposition or contradictory to confidence. Judaism teaches we should be proud of our skills and abilities while also recognizing that all the skills and abilities we have are a gift from God. Our talents are not something that we were just born with, or something we are entitled to, but should be understood as something gifted to us. Humility is the confidence and recognition that we are doing right with the gifts that God gave us. When we truly understand all that makes us special as gifted to us we, then we cultivate humility and can achieve the state of joy.

The third pillar is humor. Last year, on the last day of religious school, I asked the students to write little notes about what worked for them and what didn't. Five kids out of the 70 said that they wanted less joking during services.  Here is the deal I want to make with the congregation: I will joke less, if you promise me that you will laugh more in this coming year. Find the funny. I believe that a joyful world is a peaceful world that becomes filled with compassion, generosity, and love. If humor is one of the keys to getting there then let's all commit to laughing more. Let us commit to finding the funny more. Not as an escape from the ills of society but rather as an exercise in re-creating the world the way we believe it ought to be. A world that smiles instead of frowns.  A world of love in place of hate, anger and fear. 

The fourth pillar is gratitude. Sunday morning was the first day of Sunday school.  I woke up and thought to myself, “I don't want to get up.” I got out of bed feeling anything but joy. As I was getting ready I thought to myself, “What am I grateful for?” I started to think about how grateful I was going to be to see the kids that morning. I thought to myself how grateful I was for our four college students and our high-school and middle schoolers that are getting up early every Sunday morning to come and teach our kids. I thought to myself how grateful I was that I was going to get to lead services with Chris that morning. Suddenly my sadness turned to joy. For gratitude to truly be transformative it should not just be broad strokes gratitude but specific. If we can go through life and be very specific about the things that we are grateful for this act creates Joy.

The fifth pillar of joy is acceptance. There's a saying the Dali Lama is quite fond of, “Why be unhappy about something if it can be remedied? And what is the use of being unhappy if it cannot be remedied?” In “The Book of Joy” they point out that acceptance is not resignation and defeat. Archbishop Desmond Tutu uses the following analogy, “we can turn our faces to the wind and accept that this is the storm that I must pass through. We cannot succeed by denying what exists. The question is not how do we escape reality? The question is how can we use this as something positive?” Acceptance is recognition that life has ebbs and flows and that we ask the question, “How can we use this experience as something positive?”

 The sixth key is forgiveness. Forgiving is not forgetting. Forgiveness means that in any situation we have two choices: Din=Judgment or Rachamim=Mercy.  If we can find a way to be merciful towards others we can create joy. Rachamim means to err on the side of being understanding. Understanding does not mean agreeing, and it does not mean condoning. Understanding means that you get why something happened the way it did. The byproduct of not forgiving is anger.

My father points out to me when I am not in a forgiving mood towards someone that they are, “taking up an awful lot of real estate in my mind for somebody who's not paying rent.”  When we don't forgive we allow anger to take over instead of joy.  Anger takes up a lot of space in our psyche. When we forgive, we free up real estate in our mind for joy.  Which emotion would you rather have living there?

 The seventh pillar is compassion.  I spoke last week about the good inclination and the evil inclination.  In Judaism the evil inclination is not evil as we understand it but is an inclination that must be subdued.  I would say that the word “Rah” in the context of inclination means putting oneself in the center of their universe and “Tov” is putting others in the center of one’s universe.  There is a time and place for both.   Hillel says, "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I?" Ethics of the Fathers, 1:14 There certainly is a time and a place to put ourselves in the center. If we wish to cultivate a more joyful life we should work on compassion and putting others in the center of our lives as much as possible.

 The eighth and final pillar is generosity. Here I would like to share one final teaching from the Dali Lama and the Archbishop “The Dead Sea receives freshwater, but it has no outlets so does not pass the water out. It receives beautiful water from the rivers and then the water goes dank, it just goes bad. And that's why it is called the Dead Sea. It receives it does not give. And we are made much that way too. What we receive, and we must give. In the end generosity is the best way to becoming more and more and more joyful.

You may ask me, “Rabbi how can you talk about joy the time like this? So many awful things going on in the world how can you address joy at a time of such grief and a despair?” This is not the first time that we've lived in an age of despair. We always live in an age of despair: September 11, 2001, AIDS, the Holocaust, countless wars, revolutions, inquisitions, Crusades, famine, Black Plague and the list goes on and on. How can I talk about Joy at a time like this? How can I not? As I said last week, Joy is an act of opposition. Joy is the only thing that gets us through these tough times. Joy is not naïveté. Joy is not an act of transcendence, it is a weapon we can choose to wield.  Joy is the most powerful thing we have to combat and process the cruelty of the world.   We can end up in anger, sadness, or fear.  OR we can end up in joy.  Let’s work to make joy the destination of our journey.