I got a tattoo on my wrist this year, of the word joy. I could tell the tattoo artist thought it was a boringly cheery middle-aged woman tattoo to get, and his colleague teased him about it. But it wasn’t coming from a place of superficial positivity.
I thought long and hard about what tattoo to get, as I’m faddish and fickle. But it ended up a no-brainer. I chose a word of great significance to me. It is a family name on both sides of my family, and thus reminds me of my loved ones. It is my own middle name. My parents intended my names, taken together, to mean Great Joy. It has become a way I think of my calling in life, to be a bringer of great joy. And I need to remember that. Because I suffer from depression.
It is a significant word in my favourite book of the Bible, Philippians. Which is also a book of suffering. In this letter, Paul talks openly about a longing for death (Phil 1:23): “I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far.” This resonates with me, as I too have felt that longing. But yet he still says 2:17 “But even if I am being poured out like a drink offering on the sacrifice and service coming from your faith, I am glad and rejoice with all of you.”
I’m not going to trot out that distinction between happiness and joy. In both the English and Greek meanings, joy and happiness are vitally connected. I’m not even sure what joy is if it doesn’t contain happiness. Some abstract sense of duty fulfilled perhaps. I think when people make that distinction, what they are trying to say is there is a difference between superficial, fleeting happiness, the kind we get from a particularly good dessert and the kind of deep, lasting gladness we have when something touches the core of who we are and what life is about.
I find C.S. Lewis helpful here. I don’t completely agree with how he talks about joy, as he makes too sharp a distinction from happiness, but overall, I think he is on to something. This is perhaps why Surprised by Joy is my favourite Lewis book. It is a spiritual autobiography, centred on this experience of joy, which he links initially to experiences of the imagination.
“For those who are still disposed to proceed I will only underline the quality common to the three experiences; it is that of an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction. I call it Joy, which is a technical term and must be sharply distinguished both from Happiness and Pleasure. Joy (in my sense) has indeed one characteristic, and one only, in common with them; the fact that anyone who has experienced it will want it again.” (Lewis, Surprised by Joy)
There is a yearning to joy because it is connected to the eternal. It is not fully realisable in this world. But we can have tastes of it. Lewis calls it, in Letters to Malcolm, “the serious business of Heaven.” The tattoo on my wrist reminds me that my happiness isn’t confined by this present world. I have it on my wrist, and not on some more discreet spot because I want to be able to see it. I desperately need this reminder, that like the tattoo, my joy is unerasable.
This reminder comes in many different guises. Often it comes with tears. The good sort. I’ve been angry with God, despairing, and then found myself in tears as one of my children expresses faith. Suddenly I experience deep joy and a yearning for them to know the one who has been the central fact of my life: Jesus. I realise that under my despair there is still a strangely persistent faith.
Then at other times, it comes in moments in the struggle when I am transported out of it. These can be those supposedly superficial moments of pleasure that some deride. The other day I had a heavy heart on the way to work. I was listening to music, and a sweet pop tune came on, Ultralife by Oh Wonder. I suddenly found myself doing a dance move up the steps outside Sydney Town Hall, oblivious for a moment to the gaze of the curious tourists and workers passing by. As I reflected on why my heart had lightened, I listened to the lyrics more carefully. Inside this upbeat song are some words of sadness:
Cos heaven only knows why we feel this emptiness…
Found me on a basement floor, back when I had lost it all.
Yet the singers are joyous because in finding someone they love, they have found “ever since you came, I'm living ultralife.”
It struck me as a way to describe my life with Jesus. Not easy. No insurance against the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. But it is a life that is more meaningful than one without Jesus. It is ultralife, and in that there is joy. My moment of lightness dancing in the CBD translated into a recommitment to a life like Christ’s in which I endure my crosses, for the joy set before me (Heb 12:12).
My depression has several possible sources. Chemical imbalance, genetic predisposition, failure to self-care, deep-seated wounds. But one source I think is my desire for a life of greater joy. I’m not satisfied with things as they are. I get hurt because I’m striving for joy rather than for lesser pleasures. The answer is multifaceted too – support from loved ones, medical treatment, enough sleep, life changes. But one answer is to press deeper into that joy again, to remember that the happiness of joy isn’t frivolous, but instead is my destiny. And that makes me laugh, and dance and cry. The good kind of tears.
Megan Powell du Toit is an ordained Baptist minister. She works for the Australian College of Theology in the areas of editorial, policy and research. She is also the editor of an academic theological journal, Colloquium. She has worked as a pastor, adjunct lecturer and editor. She is married with 2 sons and a very assertive cat. Her life strategy is to be silly, honest and kind. Not necessarily in that order.