It had been one of those days. It began as I woke up late, then spilled coffee on my tie as I sat in a traffic jam. That led to a missed appointment. My bad day featured some cranky phone callers, unexpected new tasks and a task left uncompleted before I headed into another traffic jam on the way home.
After a dinner gulped down I rushed to my last obligation of the day, choir practice. The first words of the first piece we sang featured the word “joy.” I’m sure God laughed at the irony.
I felt profoundly unjoyful. My choir mates and the director also had long days full of challenges of work and family life, but they were bright, even joking between hymns. These people were joyful.
In another age my mood might be called melancholy or blue. These days the word “depressed” connotes a clinical condition. But my mood was not depression but sadness, an absence of joy.
I understand joy because I know joyful people. They get as tired as anyone and sometimes short-tempered, but it’s brief. Joyful people seem to have a deep well they can go to when necessary. They take a sip and they’re smiling brightly again. Joyful people seem to have a light shining from their eyes. It’s a gift and I’m glad for them. Different gifts for different people, scripture teaches.
The Bible shows us humanity in its full flower – blossoms, thorns and all – and our relationship through history with God. And joy has one sterling reputation in all that story. Moses might have been a joyful man even as he endured 40 years of grumbling by the people. Scripture paints Judith as a joyful woman, saying, “No one had a bad word to say about her.” Joy was in the water for the Holy Family – don’t we think of Joseph as a joyful carpenter, Mary the joyful Mother of God, and that very model of joy, our Lord Jesus especially in His resurrection?
The examples could go on throughout Christian history, certainly in the lives of the saints. So you’d think joy would crack the Big Three of the virtuous life, the cardinal (or theological) virtues of faith, hope and love.
Somewhere, joy got a bad name. Somewhere it went from an ideal of Christian living to a flimsy description of Christians, who have some mighty serious work to do. Joy has come to be equated with weakness, as the quality of a person out of touch with the realities of a hard life. It seemed you ought to be suspicious of somebody who smiled so much.
Joy fell out of the lexicon of positive descriptions of people. Honestly, how many men say their best friend is “just a joy to be with”? Or that Philadelphia Eagles fans become joyful when the team beats the Dallas Cowboys?
With joy out of fashion, depression started making a big splash. The journal Psychology Today reports that in 2007, 8.7 million Americans received treatment for depression. In other terms, about three out of every 100 people in the U.S. were being treated for depression in that year, compared to two out of every 100 in 1997 and less than one of 100 in 1987.
Depression is a serious condition, but one in which people working with professionals in talk therapy and effective medication can live whole and healthy lives.
Sadness, less than depression, has always been with us. The Psalms particularly sing the blues, centuries before B.B. King made them wail. Psalm 88’s gloomy line, “friend and neighbor shun me; my only friend is darkness” might be exceeded only by Psalm 42’s (and echoed in Psalm 43) “Why are you downcast, my soul; why do you groan within me?”
So what does one do about all this groaning? The antidote to sadness or lack of joy is found in the very next words of Psalm 42: “Hope in God, I will praise him still, my savior and my God.” Or think again of those cardinal virtues. The sweet spot lies in the middle between faith and love, with the virtue of hope.
The Catholic Church teaches that God places the desire for happiness in every human heart, and he places hope there as well to inspire our activities and order them toward the good. Hope is there in each of us to keep us from discouragement and to lift us up when we feel abandoned. And it opens our hearts in expectation of eternal happiness in heaven. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, nos. 1817-1821)
So when I deal with a bad day or even a long string of them, at least I remain hopeful, if not joyful. Sure, life’s hard, it’s a struggle. That is sometimes because, as St. Teresa of Avila says, the human soul through “impatience makes doubtful what is certain, and turns a very short time into a long one. Dream that the more you struggle, the more you prove the love that you bear your God, and the more you will rejoice one day with your beloved, in a happiness and rapture that can never end.”
“Rejoice?” There’s that joy again. You just can’t keep a good word down. But if I can’t bask in the bright sunlight of joy at least I can always have hope for a ray of happiness (or more), even on a bad day. That’s because that day will end soon and a new and better day will begin. That’s the hope that remains.