Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. … Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.
-Galatians 6:2, 9-10 (NIV)
Throughout this week, inspired by The Book of Joy, we’ve been reflecting on obstacles to joy — and what we can do about them in order to sustain our joy. We’ve talked about stress and anxiety, frustration and anger. Today, we’re talking about two more obstacles to joy: obstacles of sadness and despair.
Sadness and despair. When I say “sadness,” I’m not just talking about the emotion that comes from our more personal losses and griefs. That’s part of sadness, and I don’t need to teach you about that. You’ve known sadness. You’re acquainted. When I say “sadness and despair” here, I’m talking about the feelings of helplessness and powerlessness that come from encountering the injustices, atrocities, and sufferings of this world. You’ve known that too, right? It’s the feeling you get when you read an article, or watch a news story, or get a text alert, or just hear word about the most recent horror to hit the news cycle. Another natural disaster. Another international crisis. Another political injustice. Another loss of innocent life. Another story of child abuse, elder abuse, animal abuse, domestic abuse. Another setback in the saga of COVID-19 Another report of ordinary and intolerable cruelty. Another tale of unimaginable suffering. It’s enough to steal anyone’s joy.
The world is suffering. And when we encounter those sufferings of the world, and they cause us to feel sadness and despair… often, we withdraw. We can’t take it anymore. We disengage. We turn off the news and tune out the struggles of others. We isolate ourselves, shield ourselves with metaphorical walls of apathy. When confronted with sadness and despair, our response is often to isolate and withdraw. We respond with alone-ness. Not the good kind of alone-ness. Not the kind of alone-ness that comes as retreat and space for renewal. The kind of alone-ness that causes you to disengage and turn inward.
We do it, I think, because we’re trying to protect ourselves and preserve what we can of our joy. But here’s the thing: that closing off, that withdrawal, that self-imposed isolation — even more than the catalyst of despair itself — may be what truly threatens our very joy. So I have to wonder… what if the path to sustainable joy in the midst of sadness and despair leads in a very different direction? What if the path to sustainable joy leads away from that tendency to isolate and disengage and withdraw?
In The Book of Joy, Archbishop Tutu responds to a woman who poses a question about joy in the face of world-wide suffering. “The world,” this woman began, “is in such turmoil — war, starvation, terrorism, pollution, genocide. My heart hurts for these issues. How do I find joy in the midst of such large world problems?”
The archbishop responded: “You show your humanity,” the Archbishop began, by how you see yourself not as apart from others but from your connection to others. I have frequently wept about the things such as the ones you have mentioned. … And God weeps until there are those who say I do want to try to do something. … What can you do to help change that situation? You might not be able to do a great deal, but start where you are and do what you can where you are” (The Book of Joy, 115-116).
While our instinct in the face of such overwhelming suffering, such deep sadness and despair, may be to isolate and disengage and withdraw, to tune out and turn inward, I think what the archbishop is telling us here is that the path to joy requires just the opposite. The path to joy compels us to turn outward, to engage with the suffering of others, and to seek to do something, anything, even a small thing, in the face of it. The path to joy requires that we do not grow apathetic, or desensitized, or withdrawn in the face of suffering.
The archbishop is right. I know this, because he has scripture on his side. “Let us not become weary in doing good,” we read in Galatians (Galatians 6:9, NIV).
We are weary, I think, with a kind of weariness that joy struggles to penetrate. We are weary. We are pandemic weary. We are weary, with a kind of weariness that comes from being all too accustomed to the worst kind of news. We are weary, with a kind of weariness that latches onto despair and turns inward. We are weary… but scripture says we can’t give in to that. The archbishop says we can’t give in to that. I say we can’t give in to that. We can’t give in to weariness, or despair, or isolation. We can’t give in and withdraw and turn away from others. We can’t close ourselves off and disengage with the sufferings of the world… not if we want to be people of true joy.
If we want to be people of true joy, we have to turn outward, open ourselves up, and engage with the sufferings of the world, offering ourselves in compassionate service. It’s the only thing that leads to joy.
Turn outward. Open up. Engage… and remember:
Our God is bigger than coronavirus.
Our vision is bigger than coronavirus, too.
We are people blessing people.
We are Wesley Church.
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