Joy and Sorrow by Henri Nouwen
The following passages are taken from Father Henri J.M. Nouwen’s book “Here and Now” published in 1994.
One: Joy and Sorrow
Joy is essential to spiritual life. Whatever we may think or say about God, when we are not joyful, our thoughts and words cannot bear fruit. Jesus reveals to us God’s love so that his joy may become ours and that our joy may become complete. Joy is the experience of knowing that you are unconditionally loved and that nothing—sickness, failure, emotional distress, oppression, war, or even death—can take that love away.
Joy is not the same as happiness. We can be unhappy about many things, but joy can still be there because it comes from the knowledge of God’s love for us. We are inclined to think that when we are sad we cannot be glad, but in the life of a God-centered person, sorrow and joy can exist together. That isn’t easy to understand, but when we think about some of our deepest life experiences, such as being present at the birth of a child or the death of a friend, great sorrow and great joy are often seen to be parts of the same experience. Often we discover the joy in the midst of the sorrow. I remember the most painful times of my life as times in which I became aware of a spiritual reality much larger than myself, a reality that allowed me to live the pain with hope. I dare even to say: “My grief was the place where I found my joy.” Still, nothing happens automatically in the spiritual life. Joy does not simply happen to us. We have to choose joy and keep choosing it every day. It is a choice based on the knowledge that we belong to God and have found in God our refuge and our safety and that nothing, not even death, can take God away from us.
Two: The Choice
It might sound strange to say that joy is the result of our choices. We often imagine that some people are luckier than others and that their joy or sorrow depends on the circumstances of their life—over which they have no control.
However, we do have a choice, not so much in regard to the circumstances of our life, but in regard to the way we respond to these circumstances. Two people can be the victims of the same accident. For the one, it be comes the source of resentment; for the other, the source of gratitude. The external circumstances are the same, but the choice of response is completely different. Some people become bitter as they grow old. Others grow old joyfully. That does not mean that the life of those who become bitter was harder than the life of those who be come joyful. It means that different choices were made, Inner choices, choices of the heart.
It is important to become aware that at every moment of our life we have an opportunity to choose joy. Life has many sides to it. There are always sorrowful and joyful sides to the reality we live. And so we always have a choice to live the moment as a cause for resentment or as a cause for joy. It is in the choice that our true freedom lies, and that freedom is, in the final analysis, the freedom to love.
It might be a good idea to ask ourselves how we develop our capacity to choose for joy. Maybe we could spend a moment at the end of each day and decide to remember that day—whatever may have happened—as a day to be grateful for. In so doing we increase our heart’s capacity to choose for joy. And as our hearts become more joyful, we will become, without any special effort, a source of joy for others. Just as sadness begets sadness, so joy begets joy.
Three: Speaking about the Sun
Joy is contagious, just as sorrow is. I have a friend who radiates joy, not because his life is easy, but because he habitually recognizes God’s presence in the midst of all human suffering, his own as well as others’. Wherever he goes, whomever he meets, he is able to see and hear something beautiful, something for which to be grateful. He doesn’t deny the great sorrow that surrounds him nor is he blind or deaf to the agonizing sights and sounds of his fellow human beings, but his spirit gravitates toward the light in the darkness and the prayers in the midst of the cries of despair. His eyes are gentle; his voice is soft. There is nothing sentimental about him. He is a realist, but his deep faith allows him to know that hope is more real than despair, faith more real than distrust, and love more real than fear. It is this spiritual realism that makes him such a joyful man.
Whenever I meet him, I am tempted to draw his attention to the wars between nations, the starvation among children, the corruptions in politics, and the deceit among people, thus trying to impress him with the ultimate brokenness of the human race. But every time I try something like this, he looks at me with his gentle and compassionate eyes and says: “I saw two children sharing their bread with one another, and I heard a woman say ‘thank you’ and smile when someone covered her with a blanket. These simple poor people gave me new courage to live my life.”
My friend’s joy is contagious. The more I am with him, the more I catch glimpses of the sun shining through the clouds. Yes, I know there is a sun, even though the skies are covered with clouds. While my friend always spoke about the sun, I kept speaking about the clouds, until one day I realized that it was the sun that allowed me to see the clouds.
Those who keep speaking about the sun while walking under a cloudy sky are messengers of hope, the true saints of our day.
Four: Surprised by Joy
Are we surprised by joy or by sorrow? The world in which we live wants to surprise us by sorrow. News papers keep telling us about traffic accidents, murders, conflicts between individuals, groups, and nations, and the television fills our minds with images of hatred, violence, and destruction. And we say to one another: “Did you hear that, did you see that. . . isn’t it terrible. . . who can believe it?” Indeed it seems that the powers of darkness want to continue to surprise us with human sorrow. But these surprises paralyze us and seduce us to an existence in which our main concern becomes survival in the midst of a sea of sorrows. By making us think about ourselves as survivors of a shipwreck, anxiously clinging to a piece of driftwood, we gradually accept the role of victims doomed by the cruel circumstances of our lives.
The great challenge of faith is to be surprised by joy. I remember sitting at a dinner table with friends discussing the economic depression of the country. We kept throwing out statistics that made us increasingly convinced that things could only get worse. Then, suddenly, the four-year-old son of one my friends opened the door, ran to his father, and said, “Look, Daddy! Look! I found a little kitten in the yard. . . Look! . . . Isn’t she cute?” While showing the kitten to his father, the little boy stroked the kitten with his hands and held it against his face. All at once everything changed. The little boy and his kitten became the center of attention. There were smiles, strokes, and many tender words. We were surprised by joy!
God became a little child in the midst of a violent world. Are we surprised by joy or do we keep saying:
“How nice and sweet, but the reality is different.” What if the child reveals to us what is really real?
Five: Joy and Laughter
Money and success do not make us joyful. In fact many wealthy and successful people are also anxious, fearful, and often quite somber. In contrast, many others who are very poor laugh very easily and often show great joy.
Joy and laughter are the gifts of living in the presence of God and trusting that tomorrow is not worth worrying about. It always strikes me that rich people have much money, while poor people have much time. And when there is much time life can be celebrated. There is no reason to romanticize poverty, but when I see the fears and anxieties of many who have all the goods the world has to offer, I can understand Jesus’ words: “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God.” Money and success are not the problem; the problem is the absence of free, open time when God can be encountered in the present and life can be lifted up in its simple beauty and goodness.
Little children playing together show us the joy of just being together. One day when I was very busy interviewing an artist whom I admire a lot, her five-year-old daughter said to me: “I made a birthday cake with sand. Now you have to come and pretend that you’re eating it and that you like it. That will be fun!” The mother smiled and said to me: “You’d better play with her before you talk to me. Maybe she has more to teach you than I have.”
The simple, direct joy of a small child reminds us that God seeks the places where there are smiles and laughter. Smiles and laughter open the doors to the kingdom. That’s why Jesus calls us to be like children.
Six: No Victims
To be surprised by joy is something quite different from naive optimism. Optimism is the attitude that makes us believe that things will be better tomorrow. An optimist says: “The war will be over, your wounds will be healed, the depression will go away, the epidemic will be stopped.. . . All will be better soon.” The optimist may be right or wrong, but, whether right or wrong, the optimist does not control the circumstances.
Joy does not come from positive predictions about the state of the world. It does not depend on the ups and downs of the circumstances of our lives. Joy is based on the spiritual knowledge that, while the world in which we live is shrouded in darkness, God has overcome the world. Jesus says it loudly and clearly: “In the world you will have troubles, but rejoice, I have overcome the world.”
The surprise is not that, unexpectedly, things turn out better than expected. No, the real surprise is that God’s light is more real than all the darkness, that God’s truth is more powerful than all human lies, that God’s love is stronger than death.
The world lies in the power of the Evil One. Indeed, the powers of darkness rule the world. We should not be surprised when we see human suffering and pain all around us. But we should be surprised by joy every time we see that God, not the Evil One, has the last word. By entering into the world and confronting the Evil One with the fullness of Divine Goodness, the way was opened for us to live in the world, no longer as victims, but as free men and women, guided, not by optimism, but by hope.
Seven: The Fruit of Hope
There is an intimate relationship between joy and hope. While optimism makes us live as if someday soon things will go better for us, hope frees us from the need to predict the future and allows us to live in the present, with the deep trust that God will never leave us alone but will fulfill the deepest desires of our heart.
Joy in this perspective is the fruit of hope. When I trust deeply that today God is truly with me and holds me safe in a divine embrace, guiding every one of my steps, I can let go of my anxious need to know how tomorrow will look, or what will happen next month or next year. I can be fully where I am and pay attention to the many signs of God’s love within and around me.
We often speak about the “good old days,” but when we think critically about them and let go of our romanticizing memories, we might soon discover that, during those very days, we were doing a Lot of worrying about Our future.
When we trust profoundly that today is the day of the Lord and that tomorrow is safely hidden in God’s love, our faces can relax, and we can smile back at the One who smiles at us.
I remember once walking along the beach with a friend. We spoke intensely about our relationship, trying hard to explain ourselves to each other and to understand each other’s feelings. We were so preoccupied with our mutual struggle that we didn’t notice the magnificent sunset spreading a rich spectrum of color over the foam-capped waves breaking on the wide, silent beach.
Suddenly my friend exclaimed: “Look. . . look at the sun. . . look.” He put his arm around my shoulder, and together we gazed at the shimmering ball of fire vanishing gradually below the horizon of the wide ocean.
At that moment, we both knew about hope and joy.
Eight: Beyond Wishes
Joy and hope are never separate. I have never met a hopeful person who was depressed or a joyful person who had lost hope. But hope is something other than wishes, and joy something other than happiness. Wishes and happiness generally refer to things or events. You wish that the weather will change or the war will end; you wish that you will get a new job, better pay, or a re ward, and when you get what you wish, you are happy. But hope and joy are spiritual gifts rooted in an intimate relationship with the One who loves you with an everlasting love and who will always remain faithful to you. You hope in God and rejoice in God’s presence even when your many wishes are not realized and you are not very happy with the circumstances of your life.
Some of the most hopeful and joyful moments of my life were moments of great emotional and physical pain. It was precisely during the experience of rejection or abandonment that I was “forced” to cry out to God:
“You are my only hope, you are the source of my joy.” When I could no longer cling to my normal supports I discovered that true support and real safety lie far beyond the structures of our world.
Often we have to come to the discovery that what we considered to be hope and joy were little more than quite selfish desires for success and rewards. Painful as this discovery may be, it can throw us right into the arms of the One who is the true source of all our hope and joy.