“To get the full value of joy you must have someone to divide it with.” Mark Twain
“And Mary said, ‘My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God, my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and his descendants forever.’ Mary’s Song of Praise (‘Magnificat’), Luke 1: 46-55, NRSV
The word ‘joy’ isn’t used often in our everyday language. When was the last time you said that you are joyful, or that you rejoice about something? It seems that in this society and in our environment, we rather use the word ‘happiness’ – and the pursuit of happiness is even part of the Declaration of Independence and one of the unalienable rights of a citizen. We don’t pursue joy. Why not?
It seems to me that most people think ‘happiness’ and ‘joy’ can be used interchangeably, that they are one and the same thing. But these two words actually are quite different. The word ‘happiness’ comes from a Middle English word meaning ‘fortunate’; happiness depends on something happening to us (both words come from the same root). In a sense, we have no control over our happiness, since we don’t know what’s going to happen to us.
Happiness is also something that either pertains to an individual (what is happening to me?) or a very small group of people (like a couple or a family). Yes, happiness can be shared, but it is very limited. And, more often than not, we want someone else to make us happy. Happiness is not something that comes from ourselves. What the Declaration of Independence means by the ‘pursuit of happiness’ is nothing more than people having the opportunity to take advantage of something that is happening to them – to make something out of themselves.
Happiness is something quite individualistic. I can be happy, even though someone else is not. Happiness also tends to be elusive – not all things in life that happen to us are great, and unhappiness is the flipside.
Joy, on the other hand, comes from the Old French ‘joie’, which in turn derives from the Latin ‘gaudium’, which means ‘delight’. When we delight in something or someone, we have a much more active role than just ‘being happy’; joy is something that comes from deep inside us, from our soul.
Another aspect of joy is that it’s something that goes beyond ourselves. As Mark Twain observed, true joy is shared. Joy also includes the other.
A wonderful example of this inclusive joy is the Song of Praise of Mary, aka the ‘Magnificat’. Just read the words out loud. I bet you can’t help but have a smile on your face and an excitement in your voice as you recite these words. Mary rejoices in God, the Savior of all; and she rejoices in the fact that this Savior will turn this world around and lift up all those who are at a disadvantage – those, to whom nothing good ever happens. This is something that comes from deep inside her spirit, her soul – and her joy is based on the prospect of the welfare of all people.
Joy, unlike happiness, is something that comes from way beyond us and goes to way beyond us. And so it is only fitting that, during these days of Advent and in anticipation of the birth of Christ, the Savior of all, we talk about joy – universal joy -, and not some kind of individual happiness.
My hope is that we don’t confine joy to this time of the year only, but that we carry it into all the days of our lives and live out of this and for this joy. Happiness is a good thing. But don’t you think the world needs more joy?
Picture by Peter Conlan on unsplash.com
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