Posted by: 15shekels | August 7, 2009


People generally think that untarnished, pure joy is for children. Joy without danger, without irony, not bittersweet but just sweet — it’s the kind of joy that we outgrow. It’s endearing to see it written on a younger sibling’s face on Christmas morning, during a first snow, playing in the waves at the beach. But endearing in a sad way, because we know that soon he too will grow up and learn the looming, inevitable secret. Life is hard; life is painful. We make mistakes, we start to look old, and then we die. It’s a lesson some of us learn piece by gnawing piece — the first betrayal of a friend, the first broken heart, the first failure. Others learn it in a crash — the death of a parent, an act of violence. For the lucky, sheltered elite, the lesson often comes after college graduation as it dawns on them in a panic. Were those the best years? they wonder, looking warily down the tunnel of descent into death.

And yet we all learn, don’t we? What we’ve known all along — that someday we will die — suddenly becomes a dark cloud that looms over everything else as we realize that I am not actually exempt from this element of humanity. And from that moment on, joy is characterized by its contrast. Small moments of light cutting through the murkiness. Then the second revelation, that we aren’t likable. Yes, we drip with pride and self-congratulation, but underneath it we begin to recognize selfishness, cruelty, manipulation. And the plunge into discontent accelerates. The loss of immortality overshadowed only by the loss of self-respect.

And so we medicate. We get wasted. We try drugs. Sometimes it sinks into what we call depression and people prescribe us drugs. We have sex. Sometimes we have inappropriate, destructive sex. We turn the music up louder. We avoid, at all costs, any time alone. And when anyone talks about God, we laugh bitterly and condescendingly — God we are so far past that. We envy their silly naiveté, but we prefer the truth.

And Jesus shakes his head sadly, his voice unheard against the lalalas of plugged ears and scrunched up eyes.

The tragedy of this life is that so many of us see, feel and taste the brokenness, the tragedy, the need. We get it so acutely that we roll around in it, get inspired by it, take it as license to crash into walls. We read the conflict, but then our attention spans run out and we put down the book before the happy ending. We catch glimpses of what life should be, and mourn the hell that it has become.

“Oh Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!” (Matthew 23:37)

We shout out his name in frustration, in carnal delight, in brief moments of wonder.

And yet we hire ourselves out to citizens of distant countries, searching for joy, meaning, feeding the pigs in the field, filling our stomachs with the pods that the pigs eat.

Because it would just be too bittersweet and ironic if the real answer were all around us, hanging from chains, atop steeples, hidden in the quaint hearts of our ancestors. Wouldn’t it be the ultimate tragedy if it really is true, if there is pure joy and immortality and self-respect available, and we are too wrapped up in our need, in our misery, to see it?

“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him. The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.” (Luke 15:19-24)

And they were filled with joy.

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