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Unabashed Joy: Chasing Smiles Even in the Midst of Sorrow

Written by Ann Burns

August 27, 2021

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Nehemiah 8:10: Do not be grieved (sad, sorrowful), for the joy of the LORD is your strength.

Probably the strangest personal attack I have ever received was against my smile. Yes, my smile. It was essentially I smile too much and there is no way it can be real. So, therefore, I have to be a fake.

The more I think back on the accusation, the more confused it makes me. If anyone knows anything about me, it is that my facial expressions always give reveal how I am feeling. Poker is not my game. 

At first, I felt bewildered. Attacked for smiling? Isn’t a smile kind of like sending someone a hug? It’s a sign of warmth, delight, love and joy. How is that offensive?

And that is when it dawned on me: perhaps living in a social media age has made joy somewhat elusive.. and maybe even contemptible.

After all, we are inundated with filters and misleading images everyday. It’s not healthy, and it is definitely having a negative impact on individuals.

But even beyond that, social media has altered the way we view our everyday lives. 

Young people refer to their “offline life” as “irl” or “real life,” which seems to imply there is something fabricated about their online platforms. 

“Oh, that’s not real me.”

Lots of times, when people share painful news or a struggle they’re going through they preface it with “I am going to be real.” Which again, seems to imply everything else was unreal. Or when a woman shares an image of herself in her pjs and greasy hair, “This is the real me.” As if to say, getting dressed and washing ourselves somehow hides who we are, rather than promotes our dignity and sacredness as daughters of the King.

What a depressing outlook. Do we really believe we are so unworthy of joy? That the good moments aren’t true? Or that joy is something vapid and phony? It reminds me of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, which has one of the most dismal openings I have ever encountered: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” These words compose one of the most famous introductions in literature. They assume a tone of wisdom and insight. Yet, they could not be more false.

This is not to say that we should overlook pain and suffering, or dismiss books about tragedy. In fact, encountering stories of hardships can be cathartic. We receive a sense of satisfaction on both an intellectual and emotional level because we know, from our own crosses, life is laden with hardships. We all carry a tale of woe, and there is comfort knowing we are not alone. In a sad story we see reality. We find reassurance and validation. There is something emotionally purgative in encountering the sorrows of others. We might discover clarity. The tragedy of another can pierce through our apathy, our fears, our injuries, and in a sense affirm who we are and what we’ve gone through.

We find a profundity in the sad, unhappy things in life that the cut and dry happily-ever-after lacks.

Life is messy.

Nothing can be so ideal. It’s either fake or… as Tolstoy seems to imply “all the same.” It’s banal. It’s bland. While “a happy moment” may bring a smile to our lips, the idea of something perfectly happy somehow seems boring and shallow.  Misery holds depth.  Happiness seems monotonous. Yet, the irony remains that happiness is what we root for; it is what we seek; it is what we desire and dream of.

It is a peculiar paradox to be caught in. We want to be happy, but happiness seems either deceitful or boring. But if we recognize that happiness is something to be pursued, how can it possibly be “all the same?”

Of course there are people who pretend to be happy to mask their misery.  Of course there are shallow ways to live.  However, when it comes to real joy, let’s not be so quick to dismiss it. Believing that truly happy people are phony or arid is either a grave mistake or a lack of fortitude.

Because happy people are not without pain and hardship.  So long as we are here on earth, happiness isn’t an absolute state of being. No “happy family” is devoid of suffering. No happy individual escapes the “vale of tears.” We are all called to the cross.  So, there is something to be said for holding onto joy and smiling through the sorrow. 

It seems we’ve forgotten what happiness is. After all, as Tolstoy presents, we get the idea of unmerited smiles — some kind of  crude and unrealistic sketch of faux joy.  It’s not real.  I think a lot of people sadly fall into this trap.  It’s filtered or fabricated. Or it lacks all depth. Ultimately, an idea that is quite dull. How cruel it would be to discover that what we all hunger for is completely vapid and predictable.

Thankfully, that is not the case. 

Happiness isn’t the absence of pain, but rather seeing the pain through.

 

Happiness isn’t found in the fleeting things of this world, but the eternal things of God.  Happiness is found in clinging to our crosses, and allowing the love of God to ease us. It is recognizing that life is always tumultuous, but God is always steadfast.  Real joy is constant and miraculously made new, like the sun bursting forth after a storm. It is unhappiness, the rejection of newness, that is always the same.

“I learned from experience that joy does not reside in the things about us, but in the very depths of the soul, that one can have it in the gloom of a dungeon as well as in the palace of a king.” -St. Therese of Lisieux.

Holding onto joy in a world consumed by tragedy is a profound victory. It means that Christ is a our center, and in Him we rejoice.  Yes, that joy will by tested and hence will take courage to push onward. It is anything but the same. It is much more compelling than tragedy because it triumphs and the defeated cannot.

We can resist the allure of being sour-faced, as St. Teresa of Avila calls it, believing that there is something more noble in defeat. In defeat we turn our backs on God and lose out on true happiness. We become consumed by the fleeting and eventually resent anything that is uplifting and joyful.

Have courage, turn to Christ, and embrace joy. And don’t be afraid to smile, even through hardships. 

“In your presence is fullness of joy, at your right hand, are pleasures forevermore.” Psalm 16:11

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