"J" is for Joy
by Patricia Adams Farmer
“See the world through the eyes of your inner child. The eyes that sparkle in awe and amazement as they see love, magic and mystery in the most ordinary things.”―Henna Sohail
When I was young and impressionable and just learning about spiritual matters in my church youth group, someone offered me this acronym: Joy = Jesus, Others, Yourself. In that order. This translates (I was told) to: Jesus before others and others before yourself. I tried to embrace this thrilling hidden code of spiritual wisdom but, alas, it did not add up to joy. Instead, it weighed down my youthful spirit, separated things that should not be separated, and put me in my place: last.
Now that I am older and wiser, I still don't like the acronym; however, I recently ran across another gem of "joy" wordplay that I do like. The adult choir in my church calls itself the J.O.Y. Choir. This acronym stands for: Just Older Youth. My spirit leapt at this one! Yes, that's a perfect definition of joy for adults, and it comes packaged in song.
When I think of joy, I think of singing and of that childlike ebullience that overrides adult fears and worries in song—a song that goes down deep and rises to notes so high that only nonhuman creatures can hear. I think of birds singing in the branches of a tree I used to climb as a child, a sturdy old elm hosting song sparrows and small children—a joyful tree with a green smile, spreading its branches in welcome.
Just Older Youth gives me permission to let go of the analytical, cynical, and over-rational side of adulthood and look to the children around me—how they grasp hold of the imaginative with such gladness! How they revel in their freedom to entertain walking trees and talking animals and worlds filled with warm embraces and goodnight stories. When I was a child, the world was not so very complicated, and everything could be healed by love and caring. Yes, the very word "joy" returns me to that first gladness before I learned that such flights of childlike fancy are out of place in the serious adult world of drudgery and complications and disillusionment.
But is that true? Have we made life just a bit too complicated and cynical for our own good? We do see heaps upon heaps of examples of childishness among grownups, but surely not enough childlikeness. We can tap into either one, after all. Maybe those of us who are gaining in years and pessimism need to return to this lost gift of the joyful inner child. We might discover after a lifetime of study and work and inner struggles and outer failures that we were right the first time: love and caring do heal everything; trees do welcome us with open arms; animals do talk to us. Nature is alive, love is the greatest power, and kindness cures just about every ill.
If we were to reinterpret the first acronym—Jesus, Others, Yourself—with our childlike selves, we would not separate the three. Instead of prioritizing which one comes first, it might occur to us that we're all part of the same word. Yes, we are to love our neighbor as ourselves because we are part of each other, something children easily grasp. Neither can God be separated out like a distant king on a throne in heaven. That view of God does not illicit much joy, as it takes the sacred out of the world, the magic out of the polka-dotted ladybug, and the wonder out of the marshmallow clouds that form animals in the sky. I don't know about you, but I could not live in a world without divinity itself singing to me from the tree branches!
Perhaps we can think of the world as a place of intimate belonging, where God sings lullabies to the world through birds and choirs and acts of kindness. When we feel lost and afraid, we can always find comfort—and yes, joy—in these places. Simple. Uncomplicated. Pure. This we knew as children because we were free to listen with our hearts and sing with abandon and love without fear.
When we begin to sag under the weight of adult complications and disillusionment, we can return over and over to this deeper, simpler, refreshing joy of earlier years. By pairing the forever gift of childlikeness with the deeper wisdom of age, we create a joyful duet that sings of the aliveness of nature, the sacredness of each other, and the delights of love and belonging.
All that joy asks of us is to sing more and talk to trees and practice gratitude and dare to be kind. It's that simple, really.