Joy

Many of my friends know about my recent Kickstarter campaign. Its goal was to raise funds and awareness for publishing my first book about how keeping secrets affects spiritual maturity. The campaign ultimately funded successfully through the remarkable and enthusiastic support of many dozens of loved ones as well as perfect strangers. The nearly month-long campaign was a blur for me - filled with very late nights of work, and a roller-coaster ride of emotion. At multiple points throughout, I was alternately convinced that the Kickstarter would be wildly successful or yet would wind up an embarrassing failure. In the end, I found myself welling up with the warmth of undeniable joy.

This might not seem to be a remarkable experience to you. But for me, joy sometimes proves elusive, even in the face of events and circumstances whose ostensible outcome MUST be joy. Here's how it often plays out for me.

As much as I enjoy spending time with, learning from, and being entertained by those who throw caution to the wind, I myself tend to be a bit more risk-averse. You could say I'm a typical first-born: cautious and careful, reliable and loyal, controlling and perfectionistic (oops). In many ways, this is a constructive trait. It decreases the likelihood of making catastrophic mistakes and it diminishes the possibility for disappointment. Furthermore, it enhances the chance that I come away from a given choice feeling competent: e.g., even if my path winds up being in error, I have less to blame myself for if I had dotted every "i" and crossed every "t." (A less flattering way of saying this last bit is that, "my caution protects my ego.")

But my risk-averse nature also has obvious deconstructive aspects as well. At the same time it is abating potential pain, it limits progress. My friend Caleb has more than once shared with me a metaphor about sailing ships -- a small error in course for a vessel traveling very very fast might cause it to land far from its intended destination, but a ship traveling slowly, insisting on perfection in direction, might not get anywhere at all with its constant course corrections. This dynamic most often applies to organizations and leadership.

On a personal level however, a preoccupation with avoiding risk limits joy. When I'm faced with a new opportunity or positive possibility, I tend to focus first on the "worst-case scenario" rather than the "best-case". Oh, I know that investment has a 90% chance of quadrupling my money, but what happens to my family if I lose it all and then get sued on top of it? Rather than embracing the good news in a given situation, I typically try to quantify all the ways it might go wrong, and thereby ascertain the lowest common denominator of goodness it has to offer. If the entire thing flames out, I tend to ask myself, will there there be anything of value remaining? I then make my decision based on that. Ergo, "No matter what happens with the Kickstarter, no matter the bad news along the way, if I pursue it, at the very very least the book will have received at least a modicum of awareness built around it, and I will have learned something about marketing, communications, and my personal support system. Finally, at bottom, I will have at least tried something."

 A selfie I took at about 6pm on Thursday evening, November 30, at about the moment I realized the Kickstarter indeed was going to fund successfully.

A selfie I took at about 6pm on Thursday evening, November 30, at about the moment I realized the Kickstarter indeed was going to fund successfully.

Joy is often the first casualty of this way of thinking. In my self-protection, in by bid to avoid disappointment, I don't allow myself to expect it. Instead, it comes only as a surprise. And even then, more often than not I'm suspect of it when it does arrive. "It couldn't be this good. What's the catch? How might I lose it yet?"

This is at least part of why such wholehearted joy felt so remarkable to me at the close of my Kickstarter campaign. While I easily could've, in that moment, slipped into the stress of the next phase: thanking backers, fulfilling orders, finding an editor, finishing the manuscript, etc., none of those anxieties could take away from the fact that my project had funded, it had been a success, people are genuinely interested about this work, my book is going to help people. (Thanks Paige for helping me with that :) I had stumbled into a situation where no amount of mental haranguing could nullify my happiness. It just bubbled up uncontrollably, beautifully.

The experience left me thinking: Might it be possible to allow myself this experience in situations where losing it is a distinct possibility as opposed to an absurdity? In other words, could it be worth the risk to embrace joy even in the face of disappointment? Is there a middle-ground along the spectrum of steadfastness that is neither careless frivolity nor fear-based control?

I think it might just be possible to move through the world that way; some might call it "living."

I remember listening to a talk by Craig Groeschel at a Catalyst conference a few years ago. He described how he had arrived to a place in his life and ministry where emotionally, he was shut down. Some might call it depression. But what he described was more of a careful cultivation - he talked specifically about being shut down when it came to sadness, namely empathy for the injustice and suffering of others. I recall (perhaps incorrectly) him discussing how he had graduated to "powering through" most of the difficult tasks of pastoral ministry; not allowing himself to be emotionally available. The point of the talk, as I remember it, was that this way of living and ministering is neither sustainable nor "good." Furthermore, I remember him challenging those in the audience to begin praying for God to "break" them, which I think might've been a religious way of welcoming a deeper and more authentic emotional engagement with life. (In this sermon, he discusses a similar concept.)

I might just be at a place where this prayer is yet again an important one for me to pray. Perhaps it'd be a useful one for you as well.

I'm beginning to believe that opening myself to being broken is also opening myself to joy. By allowing my inner soldier to protect me from all harm, I'm also allowing him to keep me from the best life has to offer as well. CS Lewis something very similar in his book on love, “To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”

The story of the incarnation of Jesus illustrates among many other things, how risking vulnerability, whether it be raw emotion, or money, or power, or divinity, brings with it the possibility for transcendence, for salvation, and for joy. The surprise of the shepherds in the field ("I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all people," said the angel), was only possible because of gamble that was the incarnation. I don't mean to insinuate that God-made-flesh was somehow an irresponsible move (and now this post is dawdling into deep theological weeds), just that it probably was scary, perhaps fraught with unimaginable twists and turns, and not for the risk-averse at heart.

That "God came down" is the cause of great joy yet today is reason enough for me to again consider taking the chance of bring broken today. There are millions of reasons to be pessimistic this Christmas season, to hedge our bets, to protect ourselves from disappointment (or real suffering). The story of Jesus is one that invites us, in the middle of the real world, to embrace hope, to rest in good news, and to perhaps, allow ourselves to be joyful.