The joy of the Lord is your strength. Nehemiah 8:10 (NIV)
Something That Discovers You – Finding Joy Series – Part 2
A popular movie, many quotes, and countless books have documented and commented on how to pursue happiness and keep it once you’ve found it. Aristotle said that happiness is the ultimate purpose of human existence (1).
There’s nothing wrong with that. You would seriously question the health of someone who pursued sadness and tragedy and pain. Chasing down happiness can be a noble pursuit, as long as it's not at someone else's expense.
We don’t even realize that some of our self-light-giving-actions create more darkness for others, such is the nature of our consumer driven world. The price of some items and experiences are masked by a dollar sign, so we don’t see how much it cost someone else to get to you.
It plays out in families, relationships, businesses, industries, governments, and coalitions. We fall into the trap of pursuing happiness with the idea that there's only a certain amount of it to go around. So we better win, we better beat those either side of us, to make sure we get a winning slice of the limited happiness pie.
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Happiness tends to be triggered by external factors – winning that race, getting more affirmation, receiving what you want, having fun at an event, and so on. But joy? It’s more of an inside job. You don’t win it, or attain it; buy it or earn it.
JD Salinger said: “Happiness is a solid, joy is a liquid.”
Happiness is something you can seek, chase down, and find. But joy is something that discovers you.
In ancient Hebrew the word for “joy” is Simcha. In the Torah, Simcha was not an individual experience; it had a collective quality. It’s not something to be won, but something to be shared (2).
In his book, Nehemiah and Ezra were reading the words of the revelation (not the one that we know from the Biblical text…) to their people. They had completed restoring Jerusalem, and many exiles had returned to the beloved city. But as the words washed over them, the people grieved. Nehemiah said to them:
“Go home and prepare a feast, holiday food and drink; and share it with those who don’t have anything: This day is holy to God. Don’t feel bad. The joy of God is your strength!” (Neh 8:10).
The joy of God was in them sharing the experience together: drinking and eating and celebrating; sharing with those who had nothing, everyone at the table, no-one missing out. This kind of joy? This kind of celebrating? This kind of sharing and including and togetherness?
There’s strength in that.
The ancient Jewish people knew how to celebrate no matter what they were going through. Alan King once said that every Jewish holiday could be summed up as: “They tried to kill us. We survived! Let’s eat!” The rituals and traditions they observed, and still do, gave strength to their joy; gave it structure and form and practice. The power of joy comes from its communal nature. It’s not focused on the individual attaining or achieving something outside of itself. But on the collective sharing and cooperating; giving of oneself to others in a circular manner.
Joy comes from the overflow of what you believe about yourself and whether or not you have anything to pursue. It comes when you make peace with who are you, how you are, why you are, and what you have to give rather than what you can take.
Happiness is a solid. You can pursue it, hold onto it, hoard it, pop it on the mantle piece. But joy is a liquid, and all you can do is let it flow and pour it from glass to glass.
- Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1097a 30-34.