Inconvenient Joy

When all of an instant you realize that something beautiful and taken for granted is slipping—has slipped—away.

When an old song on the radio brings to mind a very specific, very simple, happy memory—licking frosting from a spatula, or wading in clear water, laughing like anything.

When you become aware (a changing of the light, an unusual angle, church bells in the distance) that something commonplace is actually remarkable, wondrous, even, but you’d never noticed before.

When you’re looking idly at someone across the room and all at once you see—the way they deftly peel a peach or effortlessly coax chords from a guitar or the dimple when they tell a sly joke—and you’re overwhelmed by such a wave of love it pricks tears in your eyes.

This is how it strikes, the joy C.S. Lewis describes as “unsatisfied desire,” the sensation that you have just seen through a glass darkly the hint of another, more wonderful, world. It is homesickness, a little gasp of what could be, what you were really made for. Spread out judiciously over the years, these pangs can, I suppose, be ignored, but cluster a few in a row and it’s enough to upend a life. Just ask Lewis, who followed those little flashes through the wardrobe into Narnia, who learned from joy the secret of the Joy-Giver.

September is prone to inconvenient flashes of joy—school buses rumbling down the street, Number Two pencils and ripening apples, the wistfulness of shortening days. Pay attention. They deserve a pause.

I become convinced as I age of the seriousness of joy. Because we cannot long live without it, we will seek it, high or low—in beauty or in pleasure, in challenge or in comfort, in the sacred or in another’s arms. Our desires, as Lewis reminds us, are not too strong, but too weak. We settle for the mirage, when we could press on to the oasis.

Joy, real joy, is dangerous to the enemy of our hearts, and he hates it, so he misleads. How many miners go crazy for glittering substitutes, pyrite for gold? How many shipwrecks can be blamed on the siren’s song?

Ecclesiastes considers all of the dead ends, all of the disappointments, and offers us (several times) this advice:

“Go, eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart, for God has already approved what you do. Let your garments be always white. Let not oil be lacking on your head. Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life that he has given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun. Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might…” (Ecc. 9:7-10)

So we struggle, we toil, we wait. And while we wait? (Wait for it…) Follow the flashes, to Narnia, to Aslan. 

(One of the bands that pierces me, time to time, is the Gray Havens. Here are some tunes to tune your heart by.)

She Waits

Ghost of a King

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