Looking for Joy

Sarah Richards
June 4, 2017

Looking for Joy

A few days ago, my husband Mike and I watched the latest animated video of physics teacher-turned on-line educator C.G.P. Grey. We have really learned a lot from his explanations of Gerrymandering, Copyrights, Groundhog Day, the Electoral College, and a host of puzzles of history and geography. His videos are informative, funny, and brief, just what our short attention spans love. But our reactions to his latest, “7 Ways to Maximize Misery,” were pretty different. Inverting the usual self-help instructions, these tips are for those who “want to be the saddest saddo, sailing on the sea of sadness.[i]” Now, the 7 tactics outlined were not surprising: they include emulating a pile of laundry by never moving or going outside, spending as much time as possible gazing at screens, avoiding actual interactions and making sure to have irregular sleep patterns. All of that made sense, but what put that telltale pit in my stomach was the message that as we do these things regularly, we train our brains, and we can get to the point as Grey puts it, “You will want to do what you know will make you sadder after you’ve done it.[ii]” What a downer! But of course the inverse is true as well—we can train ourselves in the other direction, to look for joy. (And that’s Grey’s intention with his reverse psychology video).

The poet Mary Oliver writes,

Every day, I see or hear something

that more or less kills me with delight,

that leaves me like a needle

in the haystack of light.

It was what I was born for –

to look, to listen,

to lose myself inside this soft world –

to instruct myself over and over in joy and acclamation.[iii]

This is an important message for me, and maybe you, if it seems as if every day we see and hear things that more or less kill us with fright, not delight. And nowadays we don’t even have to look hard, we don’t have to be listening, and we find ourselves overwhelmed with anxiety and anger. For myself, just two words can do it for me: budget impasse. I’ll bet many of you have something—or things—similar. Maybe it immobilizes us and we make like a pile of laundry, or maybe this fear and fury fuel our actions for righting injustice. But even that might not make us feel any better; we may celebrate after achieving a goal, but then return to the battle worried that we’re not doing it right, or giving enough. That is why I think the question our theme poses us this month, “what does it mean to be a community of joy?” is pretty challenging: how do we find joy in the struggle? Mary Oliver tells us to be intentional, to look , to listen, to instruct ourselves over and over in joy and acclamation. We cannot just look past or around the difficult, painful, frightening, to see something that kills us with delight.

UU theologian Thandeka wrote these words at the height of the economic recession almost a decade ago–they seem pretty relevant to our time and place:

“Attention to the emotional abuse entailed in the current economic collapse reveals the theological foundation of our mission work—feeling. As nineteenth-century Unitarian Transcendentalist Margaret Fuller reminds us, “What is done here at home in my heart is my religion.” We do not think our way home to the heart of our religious faith. We are moved there by emotions, affections, moods, dispositions, and attitudes that have been transformed into personal experiences of regeneration and renewal. This is why we say that personal experience is the first reference for our faith. We feel transformed, reengaged, and enlivened not by a creed or a doctrine but by a heartfelt experience. What occurs here at home in our heart is a foundational experience of our liberal religious tradition.[iv]

Personal experience is the first reference for our faith – Thandeka reminds us that all of our Unitarian Universalist principles – the values we aspire to live by, and goals we strive to attain – though rooted in multiple sources, the first and perhaps primal is the direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces that create and uphold life.

This makes me think of Mary Oliver’s lines

“It was what I was born for –/ to look, to listen,/ to lose myself inside this soft world/ to instruct myself over and over in joy and acclamation.”

So just as we can train our brain to actually want to do the things that make us miserable, we can instruct ourselves to look for joy. The author Barbara Kingsolver writes,

In my own worst seasons I’ve come back from the colorless world of despair by forcing myself to look hard, for a long time, at a single glorious thing: a flame of red geranium outside my bedroom window. And then another: my daughter in a yellow dress. And another: the perfect outline of a full, dark sphere behind the crescent moon. Until I learned to be in love with my life again. Like a stroke victim retraining new parts of the brain to grasp lost skills, I have taught myself joy, over and over again.[v]

And this instruction need not be a solo endeavor, in fact, C. G. P. Grey reminds us that turning away from our screens to interact with other humans is itself a movement towards joy. Being in community – a softball team, a punk band, a garden club, a labor union, any such interaction offers opportunities for us to look for joy. Being in a community of faith offers even more, a deeper, richer engagement with life’s central questions through a shared vision. In this Unitarian Universalist congregation, our vision is to seek to celebrate life, support each other in our inward and outward search for spiritual meaning, provide a liberal religious presence, and strive for compassion and justice in our community and our world. It’s not only our collective responsibility, as a congregation to enact that vision, but it’s our personal, emotional lifeline away from the Bermuda Triangle of the sea of sadness.

I invite you to take a moment right now to think of a time that you felt joy – or maybe it was a feeling of gratitude, or wonder—unexpectedly. Maybe it was during a loved one’s memorial service, when you smiled – even while your heart was aching, recalling something funny they did. Maybe it was getting or giving a hug after a tense discussion, or realizing some common ground with an adversary…..or it might have been the surprising feeling of being a part of something bigger than yourself – singing, chanting, marching with a crowd of people, eating with a bunch of folks you’ve never met. Maybe it was finding a moment of peace and quiet away from the crowd….Now take a moment to consider the possibility of intentionally looking for a moment of gratitude or joy, to instruct yourself even or especially in times of fear and despair. This month, all are invited to practice this brain training, and help each other, too. When you have these emotional insights of gratitude, wonder, joy, on the perilous road you’re on, let me know, my contact info is on the back of your order of service – send me a photo of that red geranium, describe that moment when you almost die with delight, write a song–however you capture it, and I’ll post them on Facebook, maybe use them in our first Sunday Service in July, (with permission, of course), and maybe put them on our bulletin board for the whole summer!

I believe this kind of communal spiritual practice is part of what Thandeka calls this our “mission work to the human heart.”….She writes, “We are a liberal religious people because we make space for the emotional integrity of the heart as well as the intellectual integrity of the mind. We mend souls, and when we have done so, we move on to the conditions in the workplace that break these souls…This is social justice work because we strive to alter workplace conditions and the wider social and political contexts that produce broken souls. We work to stop the assault.[vi]

In 2017, we work to stop the assault on the most vulnerable in our community LGBTQ/refugee/immigrant/Muslim/black/brown/poor/sick/old/homeless—so many of us. We work to stop the rhetoric of hate and division in human relations, then we work to stop the assault on our natural world and the interdependent web of all existence. We continue to look at our own complicity in systems of oppression, in order to dismantle them. And simultaneously, look and listen, and instruct ourselves in joy. It’s an interactive process, for us as individuals, and for us as a community.

Random example, yesterday some of us discussed the White Supremacy Culture Teach In we held last month, sharing different perspectives on what we might do next. Some of us brought in donations for the Social Action yard sale that will fund the Feed My Sheep soup kitchen, Zambian AIDS hospice and orphanage, and other projects. Some of us participated in the March for Truth rally at Turley Park, some of us spent time alone in our rooms, some of us spent time with family or friends, and one of us finished writing this sermon. Whatever we did yesterday, we were training our brains, instructing ourselves – and maybe others, too – and that’s what we’re doing right now, together. So let us get on with it, our mission work to the human heart, this is our constant purpose, no matter the particularities of the challenges we face. As Reverend Darrick Jackson reminds us,

“We are called to be together

There is so much work to do [and joy to find]

And we cannot do it alone

We need one another

Holding each other accountable to our covenants, to the holy, to love and justice

In these times, we are called.[vii]


[i]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LO1mTELoj6o&list=PLqs5ohhass_RtRoJIpCfUUppzmlNi3xRK&index=2 accessed 5/30/17.


[iii] Oliver, Mary. Excerpt from “Mindful” in Why I Wake Early: New Poems. Boston: Beacon Press, 2004, p. 58.

[iv] Thandeka. “Healing Souls, Healing a Nation” in A People So Bold: Theology and Ministry for Unitarian Universalists, John Gibb Millspaugh, Ed. Boston: Skinner House Books, 2010, p. 72. Emphasis added.

[v] Kingsolver, Barbara. High Tide in Tucson: Essays from Now or Never, New York: HarperCollins, 1995, p. 58.

[vi] Thandeka, p. 73.

[vii] http://www.uuma.org/news/346193/Resistance–Resilience-Vol-1.-18.htm accessed 5/19/17.