David C. Hughes, Writer

“For the LORD your God will bless you in all your harvest and in all the work of your hands, and your JOY will be complete." –Deuteronomy 16:15

Archive for the month “October, 2013”

The Epiphany of Joy, Chapter 1: The Search for Joy [2 of 3]

Possessing strong perfectionistic tendencies, and being educated as an electrical engineer, I look at the world in black-and-white rather than in shades of Technicolor.  As such, I can overlook the obvious, overcomplicate the situation, and overthink things.  Sometimes it’s hard for me to get out of my own way.  Mary doesn’t call me “Hard Way” for nothing.  Even though I’m not as literal as Jim Parsons’ character, Sheldon Cooper, in “The Big Bang Theory,” I can be smart-but-dense nonetheless.

So, like a good writer (and good engineer), I looked up the dictionary definition of joy, but came away dissatisfied: is joy really a fuller, more vibrant shade of happiness, or is it something totally different?  I realized I didn’t even know how to define happiness, let alone joy.  Ugh!  I’m a man of many words, but when God ordained this book, He stumped me.

Which was precisely His point.

Kathryn Marie Hanna is a cheerful 62-year-old massage therapist and ordained minister, as petite and exuberant as her little pink house.  One evening Mary, Hannah, and I met several of Mary’s friends, including Kathryn, for dinner at a Mexican restaurant in Fort Worth’s vibrant 7th Street district.  I sat across from Kathryn, who wears her age as gracefully as her smile, and we chatted while waiting for our orders to arrive.  Suddenly Hannah slipped out of the chair sandwiched between Mary and me, ran around the end of the table, and hopped into Kathryn’s lap.  Kathryn wrapped her arms around her, pulled her close, and began to sing in a beautiful birdlike voice that reminded me of Snow White.  “What’s joy?” I asked Kathryn as Hannah relaxed and her rambunctious energy settled into quiet contentment.

“Joy is an attitude,” she replied, a common answer I’d received from other folks living squarely in palm of Joy’s hand.  “I choose to be joyful.”

A couple months later, after a massage, I asked Kathryn the same question.  “We can choose,” she reiterated.  “The same situation can present itself to two different people and those two different people are going to handle it differently because of their choices.  If I choose to get angry over something I have no control over, suddenly it has control over me.”  She confessed she does, on occasion, get angry, but she recognizes the anger, wrestles it down, and moves on.  “Instead of letting it destroy my whole day or my whole week or whatever, I just get past it,” she declared.  “Resolving issues keeps you from dwelling on them.  I really think that what we do with our situations determines whether we express joy or not.”

“You know more about joy than you think you do,” my friend, Bill Kelly, affirmed one evening after I’d talked to him about God’s joy-filled assignment.  “You exude it.”  But as I mentioned, I tend to overlook the obvious: if joy was a snake, I would’ve been bitten by it a long time ago.  Hmm.  Death by joy . . . .

I have to acknowledge that, as Bill pointed out, I do come across as being a joy-filled guy.  People used to call me “Smiley” because I wear a smile as comfortably as a pair of old sandals.  I smile at everyone, and if I see you approaching, I’ll shoot you a friendly “Good morning,” or “How are you?”  Yes, I am that weirdo.  Most of the time I receive a smile back, or a “Fine, how are you?”  Rarely do I get the blank stare, the averted eyes, or a frown.

“You have a very joyous countenance,” Kathryn Marie confirmed, her kind eyes twinkling as she spoke.  “I think you live joy.  I see it in your face, you know: The wrinkles that you have and the wrinkles I have are the same–they’re smiling!”

The problem is in thinking of joy as an emotion; after all, that’s what we’ve been taught.  That’s what the dictionary says–joy is defined as intense or great happiness.  That’s what the secular world declares it.  But it’s not the whole picture. Far from it.  The struggle I’ve had with defining joy, getting to the heart of joy, comes down to one simple fact: the world’s definition is different from God’s definition.  The world’s idea of happiness is based on things, on attachments, on fleeting moments.  Joy transcends all that.

Copyright ©2013 by David C. Hughes

The Epiphany of Joy, Chapter 1: The Search for Joy [1 of 3]

All of us are coming to Joy.  Life, in confronting us with our fears, will see to that.  The more vigorously we take on life and gather experiences, the more quickly we learn the lesson.

–Todd Evan Pressman, PhD,

Radical Joy, page 18

 

There is no wealth better than health of body, and no gladness above joy of heart.

–Sirach 30:16 (NRSV)

 

When I first set out to write this book, I had no definite idea what joy was.  I mean, I sorta kinda had an inkling, like the first time I rode a thermal up to cloud base in a Schweizer 1-26 sailplane and scratched the misty gray belly of that fat cumulous as it hugged my glider and wrapped itself around my spirit.  The intense thrill, the pounding heart, the shout of thanks to God–in that moment a window flew open and joy flew in on a favorable wind.  It was a little taste, a little crumb, that, once experienced, remained on the tongue of my soul ever since.

Or when I’d walk into a bookstore and inhale the comforting smell of books, the scent of ink and glue and paper and hope, the aroma of dreams realized and purpose secured.  The same feeling which rose in my heart when that fat gray cloud enveloped my sailplane would again erupt from deep in my gut and choke me up.  The feeling was so heady, so enticing I’d tell people I could drop my engineering job and work in a bookstore just to be close to the books and the people who read them.  Another nugget, another crumb.

Or the moment my baby entered the world, my wife, Mary, under the blue sheets, her round belly painted amber with Betadine, her scared eyes searching mine as the doctor made the incision to pull out our stubbornly-breached child.  “You can look now,” he called to me as the moment arrived.  I stood up and peered over the cloth barrier just as the doctor grabbed hold of our baby’s feet and tugged.  Before I knew it he cradled that long, chubby, surprisingly clean baby in gloved hands.  “Okay, Dad, tell everyone what it is.”

I was overwhelmed.  Mary and I had made the decision months earlier to wait until the baby was born to find out what the sex was.  Somehow along the way the nurse midwives began using “he” and “his” during our weekly checkups, so we were convinced they’d let the baby out of the bassinet.  We just knew it was a “he.”  So as Mary’s tear-filled blue eyes grew wider over my wordlessness, and as I looked down at this purple and pink life covered with a bit of cheesy yellow vernix, I had no idea what the swollen thing was between its plump legs.  “You do know what it is, don’t you?” the doctor implored.  And in that moment of emotional overload, joy slid in and coaxed my voice into action as I realized God had playfully answered my prayers.  “It’s a . . . girl!” I cried.  I turned to Mary.  “It’s Hannah!”  Thus God delivered Hannah Elizabeth Hughes into the world, a little brown-eyed mirror reflecting my looks and Mary’s attitude, a reminder of God’s grace, love, and sense of humor, joy wrapped in an eight pound three ounce package of pure dependence.

But like I mentioned earlier, joy does not come naturally to me, so I have to be willing to accept it supernaturally.  I experience it in little nuggets: a shooting star on a morning walk, my wife’s touch, my daughter’s belly laughs.  I have a tendency to wallow around in the muck of my woes, to drag through the quicksand of depression, to slump through the mire of sadness, to loll in bouts of low energy.  I’m as inflexible as a piece of rebar, and I don’t respond well to changes in plans.  Instead of savoring each moment God gives me, I analyze my present reality against a backdrop of the past and the what-ifs of the future; I have a hard time living God’s commands in Isaiah 43:18-19,

 

“Forget the former things;

    do not dwell on the past.

See, I am doing a new thing!

    Now it springs up; do you

       not perceive it?”

 

or Jesus’ imperative delivered during the Sermon on the Mount:

 

“Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”

–Matthew 6:34 (NIV)

 

I can slip in and out of self-pity as quickly as my daughter can slip in and out of her entire wardrobe of dress-up clothes.  But maybe my ignorance of joy’s reality has skewed my experience of it.  Maybe it’s a matter of perspective.  Maybe, just maybe, I do live joyfully; I just don’t fully realize it.  I’d heard the word “joy” all my life, but when it came right down to it, I couldn’t tell you exactly what it was, couldn’t describe it concisely, couldn’t wrap it up into a comprehensible analogy.  I know what depression is.  I know what sadness is.  I know what frustration is.  I know what boredom is.  But I don’t know what joy really is.  Is joy different from happiness?  Is it an emotion?  A feeling?  A state of being?  Is joy something to strive for, or is it something innate, something we’re born with?  Or does it fully manifest only after being born again?  Can everyone experience joy, or only those with a well-developed spiritual foundation?  Or no foundation at all?  Can only children experience and demonstrate consistent joy, like my memories of childhood testify to, or can adults loaded down with baggage and histories and conformity and material desires and “stuff” experience it too?

 

Copyright ©2013 by David C. Hughes

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