Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Joy is a Kind of Courage

And so it came to pass that I was driving to the nursery to pick up some more flagstone for the wine patio, when a song came on the radio. It was “Mercy Mercy Me,” originally written and sung by Marvin Gaye, only Marvin wasn’t singing it this time. Instead, it was an artist I’d never heard before, Eleanor McEvoy (not surprising, since I am probably the only person on the planet who doesn’t really “get” music. But that’s a story for another time).

Maybe it was because it was being sung by someone else, maybe it was because it was this particular someone else, maybe it was some combination of the two—whatever the reason, though I'd grown up with the song, I heard the words, really heard them, for the first time and I was filled with a powerful sorrow from it.

If you need a memory nudge, here are the lyrics. I’m not going to reprint them, owing to copyright issues, but the gist of the song is that things aren’t what they used to be because we’ve gone and poisoned the Earth.

McEvoy’s rendition is slow and haunting, and utterly without hope. And it struck me as I listened to it that this is exactly how I feel, deep down inside, close to that place where the spirit resides. I feel that the situation is truly hopeless. That this song has been around for nearly forty years and it is still relevant made me even sadder. Nothing has really changed. We have made no progress in our understanding. We are always fighting the same old fights.

I feel that way most of the time about all of it—not just the environment, but wars, and health care for people who can’t afford it, and folks being unable to get along with one another without all the meanness and anger.

And yet.

We are complex organisms, are we humans not? Because in that moment, at the same time I knew that I was utterly without hope, I felt…hopeful. That two opposing conditions can exist simultaneously in our hearts is not news to any one of you, I’m sure, for isn’t this the very thing that makes us who we are?

As I said, I was going to pick up some more flagstone for the wine patio when I heard “Mercy Mercy Me.” The patio is in the front yard, which is slowly being converted from boring, unsustainable, water-sucking lawn to a garden that pays homage to its home landscape. It’s going to be beautiful, and it is my desire that it will inspire others to convert their lawns, too. It’s a small thing in a bigger, very troubling picture, but it’s something I can do about the situation. Doing something is better than doing nothing.

Thinking about my small thing, in fact, filled me with a quiet joy, and for an instant, I felt a little guilty about that. Wasn’t I realizing the direness of the situation, just a scant moment before ? Should we feel this way when all about us darkness is falling? Shouldn’t we be feeling, well, joyless?

Then I remembered this quotation from Andre Gide that I have taped to my office door:

"Know that joy is rarer, more difficult, and more beautiful than sadness. Once you make this all-important discovery, you must embrace joy as a moral obligation."

A moral obligation. It is what you do in spite of the situation, not as a luxury, but as an imperfect duty. Joy, then, is a kind of courage. Joy is the squaring of our shoulders in the face of hopelessness.

So get on out there and be joyful today. Maybe a lot of small joys can add up to make a difference.

And if you haven’t heard Eleanor McEvoy’s rendition of “Mercy Mercy Me,” wander on over to iTunes and download it. It’s worth the 99 cents. But think about joy when you listen to it.


  1. I know the Marvin Gaye version, but I haven't heard of Eleanor McEvoy before either! We must hope, amid our despair for the planet and your replacing your lawn is one of the small steps which give hope. It makes me so angry here, where the climate is dry (we're still waiting for the autumn rainfall), that municpalities and private gardens have lawns - so wasteful. I realy like the Gide quote.

  2. If that particular song can bring up sorrow in you another can elicit joy.

  3. Well. A beautiful read, and I agree with your view completely. You helping save the world one lawn at a time reminds me of The Starfish Story. My sophomore year, my sociology professor's last lecture to us was this. He told us that while we may think that our one little deed might seem small and insignificant, it matters to that "one starfish" we saved. Definitely one of the more influential lectures I've received in my undergraduate career.

    I enjoy what you have added to this lesson (or at least, this is what I took from it) -- the importance of smiling while doing so... the importance of seeking and embracing joy in addition to change. Anyone can say that they've suffered through many great battles while struggling to make a difference, but how many can say that they've kept up their good spirit in the process? It's just important.

    And, on another note, (although I feel like I've told you this in a billion different ways lately) you should know that like the starfish and your lawn, your struggles,attempts,etc. to influence your students - though one student at a time may seem insignificant - make a huge difference in the world as well. In my opinion, at least. While the effects of your influences are not as clearly defined as "helping cure our environment," or "helping starfish survive," they exist. And who knows? They might even intertwine with the ones listed above. I just thought I would remind you. Again, I appreciate it, and I appreciate you maintaining your good spirit in the process.

  4. I love that quote!! Joy is a moral obligation... I love it!

  5. This was the best thing I have read today and the idea that joy is a moral obligation is refreshing. I went searching for the Marvin Gaye song and listened much more intentionally. Thank you.

  6. Susan, An excellent essay...I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. My mantra of late has been this~~Don't let what you can't do stop you from doing what you can do. Thank you for the Gide quote; it will be perfect on the wall in my office. A good reminder. gail

  7. A lovely and thoughtful post. All we really can do is to keep plugging away in our own way. Remember that a whole thing is always made up of many small parts and I for one keep plodding along.
    1. I never water the get rainwater or goes without.
    2.The lawn such as it is is all native grasses
    3.We own a managed forest where our goal is propagation of native species with a focus on wildlife habitat.
    It is only 86 acres but every little bit helps.

  8. What a thoughtful piece :)

    It's the sorrow which makes the joy well, so joyful. If we didn't have both, then life would be too bland.

    Now I'm going off-topic - you asked what Jacket potatoes are. They're potatoes baked in their own skins. Yum. I've amended my post so thanks for asking :)

    Hope you're having a great weekend!

  9. Hey Susan, trust you to put the dark and the light together for shading, contrast, and richness that mirrors life. I am curious to know the story of you and music, will look forward to it if you choose to tell it someday. As someone who considers it as important as my blood, I am curious about how other relate (or don't) to it. Have you read "This is Your Brain on Music"? I thought it was a pretty good read. I know you will share many a joyful moment on your wine patio flagstones, as well as discussing serious stuff and figuring out how to do what you can to keep up the good fight on behalf of our planet and its precious creatures. Skol!

  10. Lovely quote, but I can't force myself to be joyful, moral obligationor not. I am a poet. We aea melancholic lot--and if we weren't, well, we could suffer nobly for our art. Right? Hmph. I need chocolate. And wine.

  11. What a wonderful post.

    The 'scientific me' cringes when I think of where we are as a planet - how we're debating 'combating' climate change when really, most of what it would involve is the right thing to do even if rising seas weren't lapping at our doorsteps (more literally for some than others...). And healthcare! Don't get me on that one. When one looks at the history of healthcare (and work-supported healthcare) - there was little reason for it to evolve that way. And how could we deny decent care to someone that is ill? Why are we so stubborn, so self-involved, so selfish, so short-sighted?

    But I'm totally with you. If there was no hopefulness, then what's the point? If there's power in an individual, which history has shown us - then there MUST be quiet or hidden or subtle power in these small individual acts of respect one pays to a tiny piece of land. We just need it to become viral...

    So yeah - I like the thought that joy is a moral obligation. Plus, I've always loved Marvin Gaye.

    (Now what's this not 'getting' music thing?? Really? I'm quite curious about this one!)

  12. I read your entry with much feeling. It is so sad to live without hope, and I know it's trite in these days to say it, but my hope is in the Lord. While I hope in him, I also try to do my little part to make this wonder filled Earth a better place for all of us. You continue to educate, and I will too. We'll also continue to love the humans around us, those we agree with, and those we don't. Love the song. Thank you.~~Dee

  13. What a truly thought provoking post. I am not sure if I know what joy is, except that it is music that brings me closest to something more than the ordinary, to a special place within myself. I agree with Benjamin,I don't think I can be 'obliged' into joy and I feel you are right in saying that joy requires courage. As I say, thought provoking. Thank you.


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