Joy like a fountain

Rev. Chris Jimmerson
March 12, 2017
First UU Church of Austin
4700 Grover Ave., Austin, TX 78756

How often do you allow yourself to stop and bask in a joyful moment?

A few years ago, I was participating in a discussion in a class back when I was still in seminary . We had read some books about social movements and social change that dared to offer data suggesting that over the long haul, we humans have actually made some progress toward reducing overall rates of violence and increasing respect for human rights and dignity.

Several people in the class found it very difficult to believe this.

They argued with the data. The discussion got heated.

For a moment, I feared that we might singlehandedly, in one liberal religious seminary class, reverse years of violence reduction in a one afternoon. I had to wonder, why do we as progressives seem to have such trouble accepting it when actual progress has been accomplished?

Do we have some latent and unconscious Calvinistic streak coursing through our veins, inherited through our Puritan historical roots? Aren’t we the ones that broke away from that heritage, proclaiming the universal salvation of all humans?

Yet, there we were, a room full of future Unitarian Universalist ministers, basically arguing that humans were on the whole still catapulting toward violence, destruction and ruin, the victims of our own flawed nature. And it wasn’t the first time I had heard such sentiments expressed among either our ministry or our laity – I’ve been possessed by such despair myself at times.

And so I had to start wondering, where does this come from? If we are the folks that proclaim the inherent worth and dignity of every person, why are we so often so darned grumpy about humanity in general? Why do we find it so difficult to be grateful for it, to find joy in it, when we actually do make progress? Do we have some issue with celebration and joy?

Now, let’s set aside for just a few moments the current rise in authoritarianism in our country and our world that many of us fear threatens that progress I have just been talking about. I’m not ready to embrace the naysaying just yet. Later, we will come back to that and how being able to find and create joyfulness may actually be a key element of organizing successful resistance movements against this authoritarianism.

First though, how do we define joyfulness, why do we seem to have this resistance toward accepting and experiencing it and why does it matter?

I think most of us know joy when we experience it, and yet, it can be difficult to define precisely. Most dictionaries will define it as a form of elevated happiness, yet, for me at least, that seems an inadequate description of the actual experience of joy. In the very few psychological studies that have been done on the subj ect, people described joyfulness as both an increased sense of pleasure or happiness and an experience that expanded qualitatively beyond happiness to include thing like:

  • A sense of right place in the world
  • A feeling of deep connection with other people, as well as with the web of all existence
  • A sense of deep gratitude – of being blessed by forces larger than ourselves, such as love and belonging.

Jewish philosopher and religious thinker, Martin Buber, expressed a way of viewing joy that I find exceptionally beautiful, even though I do not share the same concept of God or divinity that he had.

Buber thought that at the moment of creation sparks of the divine fell into everything that exists in our world. Those sparks are still there, scattered, lying lost and neglected in all that surrounds us. For Buber then, joyfulness happens when we find those sparks, hold them up and release them. And we do that by finding connection with one another and with the natural world (and Buber would have said with God also).

I did an admittedly informal and unscientific public survey on Facebook where I asked people, “How or where do you experience Joy?”

Every single answer had to do with finding connection. Not one person listed buying a new car or getting that job promotion or even changing the world. Their experiences of joy were all bound up in relationship. Here are just a few:

– “Laughing with friends, hugging my family, seeing something in nature or humankind that I’ve never seen before.”

– Another person said, “When I have actually helped someone in reality.”

– Yet another commented, “Making mom smile.”

– Someone else wrote, “Playing the ukulele with my daughter.”

– Another one was, “Lying in bed with my love and my fur babies with nowhere to be.”

– Others spoke of nature, music, the arts and their church.

– One just said, “My kitties.”

Metaphorically at least, they were all finding joy releasing those sparks of the divine.

That all seemed great to me! So, why is it, then, that we can have that resistance I mentioned earlier to fully embracing and experiencing joy? We don’t even talk about it much. A meta survey of psychological research found that 90% of the studies on record regarding emotion where on negative emotions. Researchers had done thousands of studies regarding depression alone, while there were less than 400 studies about things like happiness or joyfulness.

Maybe it is not just progressives that shy away from discussing or examining joy.

In an interview with Oprah Winfrey, Dr. Brene Brown, well know researcher, author, speaker and Goddess from the University of Houston School of Social Work, said, “If you ask me, ‘What’s the most terrifying, difficult emotion that we experience as humans,” I would say, ‘Joy.”

Dr. Brown says that we find joy foreboding because it requires that we be vulnerable – because fully knowing joy will mean we will also fully know loss. So when we experience joy, we may find ourselves holding back, imagining all that could go wrong.

She tells the poignant story of a man in his 70s who she interviewed, who told her that his whole life he kind of stuck to a middle ground, never feeling too much joy. He just kind of stayed right in the middle emotionally, never feeling too much either good or bad. That way, if things did not go well, he would not be devastated, and if they did work out, it would a mildly pleasant surprise.

In his sixties, he had been in a car accident in which his wife of over 40 years had been killed. He told Dr. Brown that since the moment he realized she was gone, he has regretted not leaning harder into their moments of joy together – that not doing so certainly did not protect him from such great loss.

Dr. Brown goes on to say that, in all of her 15 years of research, the only way she has found to cultivate joy, as well as to interrupt ourselves when we begin to get that sense of foreboding that can disrupt our joy, is to practice gratitude – to find some regular, periodic way of recognizing that for which we are grateful. She says simply that, “We don’t get joy without gratitude.”

In addition to Dr. Brown’s research, I read some very interesting studies that indicate we can amplify our sense of gratitude and our experiences of joy by sharing them with our loved ones. Sharing our joy increases it and seems to also increase our sense of well-being and life satisfaction over time.

And sharing our joy may also be good for those around us and well beyond them. A 20-year, longitudinal study in almost 5,000 people found that joy is “contagious” through three degrees of separation within our social networks.

Here is how one of the study investigators described how it works, “For example, in a network of sexual partners, if you have many partners, and your partners have many partners, you are more susceptible to catching a sexually transmitted disease. Similarly, the most connected people have a greater likelihood of catching happiness.”

I’m not sure I like STDs as a metaphor for my joy, but the point is that we can “infect” each other with joyousness at the level of our friends, our friend’s friends and our friend’s friend’s friends. Given the STD metaphor, let’s just not let it get too friendly.

And this… this all may matter even more than we might otherwise suspect. At the individual level, studies have found that living more joyfully can result in developing greater antibody responses when vaccinated, reduce the risk of heart disease and limit the severity of cardiac problems if they do occur. It can also reduce the incidence of pulmonary disease, diabetes, hypertension and colds and other upper respiratory infections as well.

In a Dutch study of elderly people, it reduced an individual’s risk of death by 50% over the nine-year study period. Studies have also found that infusing children’s education with a sense of joyfulness increases educational attainment and can accelerate movement through the developmental stages. People who have specific gratitude practices are more likely to exercise, have regular medical checkups, wear sunscreen and engage in other preventative healthcare actions.

At the group level, shared joyful experiences increase group bonding and cohesion and can be one of the more effective ways to educate and raise consciousness on social issues. And this is where we return to how a sense of joyfulness may be a key element in efforts to resist the threats to civil and human rights, our environment, the institutions of democracy and on and on that we are seeing in our country and throughout the world these days.

As many of what had been separate social movements begin to join together so that we can build more power, this sense of joyfulness can help bind together diverse communities, who until recently may have been strangers to one another, and it can breathe life into organizing such broader, larger, more diverse movements.

We do not have enough time left today to go into all that is being studied and tried; however here are just three ways that have already proven effective in infusing joy into organized resistance and bringing about social change:

  1. The use of humor as a community organizing strategy. I’ll give some examples shortly.
  2. The use of culture (arts, street theatre, advertising, music, singing, food, faith rituals, etc.) also as an organizing tool, and
  3. Protest as theatre and carnival- wherein a protest might be like a huge party. It might include the usual march and rally, but might also include street theatre (such as a die in), music, dancing, food booths, religious vigils, chanting and singing and the like.

For example, “Church Ladies for Choice” a mixture of women and gay men in drag protect clients entering a Brooklyn reproductive health clinic from Far right, anti-choice activists by getting between those activists and the clients, playing tambourines and singing such songs as, “This Womb is My Womb” to the tune of “This Land is My Land.”

An observer at the protest as carnival event outside a meeting of the World Trade Organization a while back commented, “I watched a hundred sea turtles face down riot cops, a gang of Santas stumble through a cloud of tear gas, and a burly Teamster march shoulder to shoulder with a pair of Lesbian Avengers naked.”

Closer to home, when a Texas A&M alumni recently rented a space at the school and invited self-professed white supremacist Richard Spencer to speak, rather than stifling Mr. Spencer’s first amendment rights, the school and its students instead organized a huge Unity rally to occur at the same time as the speech. Held in the school’s football stadium, this protest as carnival event included speakers, live music and other fun activities.

Several of the student associations at Texas A&M also worked together to ensure that by far the largest part of the audience for the white supremacist’s speech consisted of students of color.

Even closer to home, here in Austin, at the University of Texas, to protest the State of Texas legalizing open carry of guns on college campuses, students and others instead open carried… life-like replicas of a certain part of the male anatomy.

I think that not only can this sense of joyfulness and playfulness make our social justice work more effective, but that we also need it in between the rallies and the marches and the lobbying and the calling representatives and the testifying and all of those other activities in which so many of us are engaged right now. There is so much, and it can become so overwhelming.

Cultivating joy in our lives and with each other can sustain us and help us avoid burnout and cynicism. It can nourish our souls and provide the fuel for the long work of doing justice that lies ahead of us.

Especially in a religious setting such as ours, I think a sense of joy is absolutely necessary. As one religious scholar whose work I read recently put it, “Religion without bliss devolves into moralism.”

I think this congregation has a wonderful sense of playfulness and humor – a joyfulness in our worship and throughout the life of the church. As we face the challenges posed by rising authoritarianism and persist in fighting back against racism and other forms of oppression, continuing to cultivate that joy together becomes even more important than ever.

In every ministry team and committee meeting, in every planning session for our next social action, in every classroom and even in our individual interactions in hallways and parking lots, may we make it so.

May we continuously express our gratitude for and the joy we find in each other.

My beloveds, life’s challenges and sorrows will come. We face daunting hurdles ahead in our struggle for justice, equity and the protection of our democratic processes.

May we never let this rob us of our joy.

May we cultivate joy together, finding and upholding those sparks of the divine that are within us and all around us, if only we remember to look for them.



Podcasts of sermons are also available for free on iTunes. You can find them here.

Most sermons delivered at the First UU Church of Austin during the past 16 years are available online through this website. You will find links to them in the right sidebar menu labeled Sermons. The Indexes link leads to tables of all sermons for each year listed by date (newest to oldest) with topic and speaker. Click on the topic to go to a sermon.