3 Ways to Cultivate Joy While Working for Change
I was among millions across the globe wrapped up in the glee of Pharrel William’s song, “Happy.” I first heard it while watching Despicable Me 2 with my family last year. As the credits rolled I remember making a mental note to add it to my workout playlist.
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Pharrel even released a 24-hour video of the song on YouTube for millions to enjoy globally – creating a sort of time released happy capsule that was just a click away.
I thought about how this “Happy” anthem struck a chord in our world’s collective unconscious. “Could it be a sign that all of us, the human family, crave deeper joy and some levity?”
I think faith-based communities can discuss this for years to come at a time where joy is a necessity more than a luxury, and ministers are flaming out quicker than ever, and according to a New York Times article, suffer from depression “at rates higher than most Americans.”
Maintaining a sense of joy is then vital for my own work, especially since I lean toward New York-bred cynicism and incredulity. Activism can be rewarding, yet also extremely discouraging at times. Change can seem incremental at best, and the issues are much bigger than any one person or institution can handle. Making joy a vital ingredient in the active life of faith, within the soul of activity.
I’ve been considering three approaches in cultivating joy, a God-given, buoyant energy, in the midst of some weighty work.
1. Limit the Activism
Yep I said it. And I do so prayerfully … I promise ...
Yet someone much wiser said it first. Trappist Monk Thomas Merton wrote:
There is a pervasive form of contemporary violence to which the idealist fighting for peace by non-violent methods most easily succumbs: activism and overwork … It destroys the fruitfulness of ones work because it kills the roots of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.
Wisdom is an insight that helps us to respond (not react) against too many demands. Sifting through our inbox is an example of this. On any given day, the number of causes I’m asked to respond to can seem exponential and at times overwhelming. I know I’m not humanely wired with the emotional bandwidth to wholeheartedly engage it all.
But a sustained effort in fewer places can keep the boat from sinking. And we might even begin to see what true fruit and progress actually look like.
2. Learn Laughter
Some scholars believe Jesus used occasional satire to bring the kingdom message. Why else would he ride on a donkey during his triumphant entry? Could it be that he was making a mockery of the powers of the empire and its conquering Caesars?
Even today comedians can be the most significant prophets of our day. They help us laugh at ourselves when we take ourselves too seriously (brain studies show laughter decreases stress by 15 percent).
I need, I crave friendships that bring me the joy of humor, people who make light of the work so the work can become lighter.
I’ve made it a point to seek out “veterans” who joyfully encourage me. My friend Rev. Alfonso has worked as an advocate and funder of youth development organizations for decades. Now retired and consulting, he still maintains the same youthful joy and humor. His presence alone keeps my work in perspective, and I average about three to four hearty laughs when I’m around him.
I’m also thankful for wise family members who recognize when I’m turning even the most banal of conversations into another cause, people who can gently remind me that I’m the cause … then take up their own cause, petitioning me to go on vacation.
3. Leave a Scratch [with others]
An African proverb wisely reminds us, “If you think you’re too small to make a difference try spending a night with a mosquito.”
I find work-induced despair comes when we believe the work is fruitless. But light peeks in when I remember how small contributions are part of a collective thrust in the rooting of God’s commonwealth. Our collective scratches on the heavenly chalkboard screech for justice loudly together.
If I think about the prison industrial complex, the war in Gaza, immigration reform, as a sole individual, I'm quick to despair and ask questions like, “what difference do my actions make in the world?”
Yet if faith activism is partnering with God and others, joyfully inviting beauty, flourishing, harmony, and redemption into our world. If all activity: art, writing, parenting, gardening, marriage, etc., is about contributing to flourishing then there is joy to be found.
A single protest, speech, policy analysis, or haiku about gentrification in Harlem is a medley of joyful efforts pointing in the same direction.
So we can, as they say, “simmer down now.” Be joyful in the place where we’re planted. Playfully float within the fray, knowing that “the joy of the Lord is our strength.”
Rev. José Humphreys is a faith organizer, and pastor of Metro Hope Covenant Church, a multi-ethnic church movement in East Harlem, NYC. José remains committed to shalom-making in NYC, through facilitating conversation across social, economic, cultural and theological boundaries.
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