Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Reprise: Joy is a kind of courage

I cleaned up my office door today--you know, took down some old posters, photographs, and bits of things I had taped to it. One of those bits was a quotation I mention in this old post of mine. Since I was feeling a little discouraged tonight, I thought I'd pull it up and look at it again. It's worth a revisit once in a while, I think.

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 comment:

  1. I have had similar thoughts when listening to some old Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. The themes keep coming around.

    There was a quote in a news article about extending the vote to 16 & 17 yr olds in Argentina: "“Everyone contributes their little grain of sand..."

    And one of my favorites from Pete Seeger: ""Environmentalists are like a few guys putting sand on one side of a scale with teaspoons, while on the other side a lot of industrialists are loading boulders with dump trucks... You can never tell what might work if we had enough people with teaspoons."

    We gotta keep plugging along in spite of all evidence to the contrary because our contributions do matter.


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