Tag Archives: joy

Last post, a reader wondered whether it was okay to do martial arts for the wrong reasons, and imagined that “BECAUSE IT’S AWESOME” might be a wrong reason. I tried to set him straight. Today we take on this part:

I always favor amiableness over confrontation, to a fault…And while I’ll readily admit that I could stand to toughen up some, I also see a lot of good things in my peaceful nature. So, while it seems prudent and valuable to be capable of self-defense, I don’t actually relish the thought of fighting itself.

My reader does not watch enough TV. If he did, he’d be familiar both with the Arrogant Kung Fu Guy and with the Martial Pacifist. The former wants to beat you up to show how badass he is; the latter shows how badass he is by not beating you up — unless he really, really has to, and then look out. Like Tony Jaa here:

See, he didn’t want to do that! But that dude was bad news.

So, don’t be Arrogant Kung Fu Guy. Be the Martial Pacifist. It would be better if, say, your loved ones were never threatened by somebody who would only respond to violence. But if that happened, it’d be good to be capable of effective violence.

But since my reader is probably not predisposed to be Arrogant Kung Fu Guy anyway, I’ll add that my initial and current reasons to do Kung Fu are mostly not fighting-related. I do it because:

  • I love my Kung Fu family. I spend more time with these people than with my actual biological family. We laugh together, suffer together, fight together, smell horrible together, and occasionally even karaoke together. If it were just about me and getting Kung Fu Skills, I doubt I’d last a month.
  • It feels great to feel this great. For the first few weeks, Kung Fu class made me feel like a volcano. I’d let out war cries all the way home, because I had to get all that good feeling out somehow, or my head would explode and splatter magma all over the interior of my Jetta. It didn’t last — my body got used to the endorphins, or whatever — but it still makes me feel great, and I can’t imagine going back to sitting around all week.
  • It feels good to be strong. I’m proud of myself and my muscles. I’m not cut or ripped or jacked or swole, but I am strong, and I look strong, and I feel like I look strong. That affects the way I feel all day long. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with going to the gym to get bigger, but martial arts builds muscles that you actually use. I just turned 30, and I’m in the best shape of my life.
  • I belong here. Kung Fu has been making up for a lot of the stuff I missed. I felt invisible in high school, and it feels awesome to be greeted with happy shouts when I walk in the door. I was a skinny, awkward kid, so it feels great to move with strength and grace. I used to be scared of doing any kind of physical demonstration in front of people, so I get a huge boost from performing in front of the class, or giving and getting hugs and high fives after a sparring match. My real family, like most, screwed me up in about as many ways as they blessed me. Kung Fu helps fill in those gaps and right those wrongs.

In the last few months I’ve discovered the joys of sparring, too. They don’t call it a martial art for nothing: I’ve never hit a home run, but it can’t possibly feel more magical than the first time you try Drawing the Bow or Rising Sun or even just a simple feint during a real match, and it actually works. That’s fire, that’s glory!

Sifu Gary and me, after I ran "the gauntlet" for my 30th birthday.

J. and I have been driving for four hours or so, with C. asleep in the back seat. Even though the setup is perfect, we haven’t had a single DMC1 yet, just a stream of banter as we find the places where our senses of humor fit together. Is something wrong, or is this good? Is this how friends are?

There are some things you can ruin just by thinking about them too hard. All we have to do for friendship, maybe, is to put in motion the heavenly mechanism that already exists in us; when we scheme, when we calculate, we ruin all.

With J. it wasn’t like that. I didn’t pursue him or suck up to him or emulate him or seek him out or employ any of the hundred tricks I had so often used to Make Friendship Happen. I just did what I did, and found that he and I had unexpectedly fallen into step. The greatest blessings are the ones we don’t expect.

There in the car, I had the impulse to bring up something heavy, something personal. It was a manipulative instinct: if I could get him talking about something that he wouldn’t talk to just anyone about, it would be another confirmation (I always wanted more!) that we were Really Friends. A forced bond is better than no bond at all, and if you bond with somebody, that makes it less likely that they’ll leave you behind.

But I decided not to manipulate. It was pure grace, or a nudge from my long-suffering angel, that made me remember something Father T had just told me about patience.

Patience means not only being willing to wait for the end of something, but staying alongside it the whole time: not just waiting for the fruit of the tree, but watching as it grows, loving the dirt and the sap and the rain, rejoicing in the bud and the blossom as well as the apple; not only because they are necessary precursors, but because they too are ends, are good.

And I remembered how, in dirty church basements, I and the other support-groupers would tell each other all our old shames and fears, wring ourselves dry, try to get it all out in an effort to know and be known, understand and be understood. How it helped, and how it missed the point.

It’s a great blessing to find that you can speak the unspeakable and not be reviled. But only time makes friends out of strangers; and at the end of the night, or the month, or the year, we hardly knew each other any better than at the start.

You’d think our secrets would make us most ourselves, but they turn out to be the same as everybody else’s. Everyone hurts in the same ways, everyone debases themselves in the same squalid rituals that every priest has heard and absolved and forgotten ten million times.

What we really own, and what makes us delight in our friends, are those sparks of self that dance along our surfaces: the unrepeatable gesture, the characteristic chortle, the way that only he will react to something that only you would think of saying.

It takes time. I settle back, grin, and belt out the chorus to the Zeppelin song on the radio. We grow so slowly! But patience is another kind of joy.

“I was not in love as yet, but I was in love with love; and, from a hidden hunger, I hated myself for not feeling more intensely a sense of hunger. I was looking for something to love, for I was in love with loving, and I hated security and a smooth way, free from snares.”1

Not in love, but in love with loving! Not desiring, but desiring to desire! People are not simple.2

It’s been said that the only thing necessary to become a saint is to want to be one. But there’s the trick: how many people want to be saints? Wanting to be a saint is simple, but simple doesn’t mean easy. And the little steps along the way to sainthood require desire, too. St. Augustine famously prayed: Lord, give me chastity — but not yet.

Do we want chastity, do we want sanctity, do we want God? Honestly: probably not.

We assume that we have no control over what we desire, only over what we do. Is this true? In any given moment, it is true. But of our lives as a whole, it is not.

How else could the church at Ephesus be chastised for “forsaking the love [they] had at first,” or the church at Laodicea for being lukewarm?3 They are not rebuked for what they have done or failed to do — “I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance” — but, it seems, for what they have desired and not desired.

Desire is one of the things we most admire in others. Haven’t you ever met someone who seems filled with it — desire for joy, for experience, for life? Is there anything more beautiful? And is there anything sadder than someone who has lost all of his desires?

If desire is really beyond our control, then it makes no sense to admire someone who is a “man of desires”;4 it only makes sense to envy him, the way we envy someone who is born stronger or more beautiful than we are. And if it’s beyond our control, it makes no sense to blame ourselves if we experience a lack of desire.

But we do admire such men, and we do blame ourselves. And we are right to do so.

We are right to blame ourselves because, even though desire itself is beyond our control, the desire for desire is not. We may desire the wrong things, we may lack desire for the right things, but it is always in our power to desire to desire.5

Desire is a chain. The desire we feel consciously is only the very last link. The first link lies in the roots of our will. The first link is under our control; the rest follow from it.

Do you find desires in yourself that are beneath you, that are not worthy of you (you, the child of a King)? You may not have the strength to stop desiring them — but you can desire to stop desiring them, and bring this desire to God. Bring it repeatedly and earnestly; bring it to Confession and the Eucharist. God will dry up your evil desires like a poisoned well.

Or do you lack desire? Maybe you know with your mind that purity is good, but you can’t find anything in yourself that doesn’t want to go out and sin. Maybe you know that sainthood is your destiny, but every part of you wants only to serve yourself. Maybe you lament your lack of adventurousness, but can only find in yourself a desire for comfort.

Then, if you can’t desire these things, desire to desire them, and bring this lack to God. Bring it over and over again, bring it to the Mass, put it on the altar with the bread and chalice. He will fill you with his living water, which not only quenches thirst but awakes it. Whenever he gives us himself, we want more of him. Our desire grows with every drink.

Desire may be beyond our control, but the secret root of desire is always ours. It is our hand at that rudder — not the hand of chance, or passion, or chemistry, or fate. If our hand is not strong enough to turn that rudder, the Lord’s hand will cover ours, if we ask Him daily and persistently. And slowly, slowly, the ship will begin to turn.

Happy, happy Gaudete Sunday. May the Lord make us men and women of great desire. May we be forever restless, until we rest in Him.

1 The Confessions of St. Augustine, Book 3, Chapter 1.
2 Litotes!
3 See Revelation 2:4 and 2:16, respectively.
4 See Daniel 10:11.
5 Not a typo. And while I am footnoting: To the reader whose email inspired this post, thank you! God bless you!

“Death is the mother of beauty.”

Dear Wallace Stevens, you brilliant, urbane, doddering old insurance-salesman of a poet: no it isn’t.

Yesterday being All Souls’ day, I spent some time thinking about death. I wasn’t depressed. I felt (and feel) great, actually. Thinking of death is what you’re supposed to do on that day and on Ash Wednesday and at the very least, although more often would probably be better. Pulvus es, et in pulvum reverteris. How will you live, knowing that you’re going to die?

The quotation at the top is taken from Stevens’ very beautiful Sunday Morning, where the mild ennui of a non-churchgoer on Sunday slowly gives way to a meditation on the paradoxes of desire.

“She says, ‘But in contentment I still feel/The need of some imperishable bliss.'” The woman longs for something without knowing what. Even paradise would be incomplete, says the speaker, because paradise lacks death — death which is the mother of beauty, giving all things value because they will have an end. If life extends to infinity, life becomes meaningless; only death gives meaning to life.

This is, of course, romantic horsesh★t.1 It’s exactly the sort of thing you would believe if you were a melancholy college student who didn’t give much creedence to the ordinary idea of happiness as fulfillment of desire because it was too mainstream. Death is the mother of beauty: this was my mantra for years. I had to live, Live!, because one day I would be dead and what did I want it to say on my gravestone?

So I constantly questioned myself: was I living life to the fullest? Was I wringing the maximum enjoyment out of every moment? Did I embrace every experience with open arms, or did I hide from life? Was I fully awake, or did I ever let myself coast along on autopilot? Was I joyful, was I alive, was I having EXPERIENCES??

Try living that way and see if it doesn’t make you a nervous wreck. The irony is that I was doing my best to celebrate life, but there was no atmosphere of celebration about my desperate grasping after experience. That wasn’t joy, it was fear. Fear of not meeting the deadline, fear of flunking at life — in short, fear of death.

If you want proof, think back to the last time you were really happy — not just content, but happy, awed, sublimely assured of the goodness of things. Were you thinking about death? Were you glad, because the world was perishing and you were surrounded by dying flesh, which made everything more precious? Probably not. It was eternity you were tasting. Children know that the last two weeks of summer vacation are impossible to enjoy, because you can’t forget that death/school is just around the corner.2

Live every day as if it were your last, goes the saying. That might be good advice if you’re the kind of person who pays no attention to life, who feels no stirring of guilt after days of nothing but sleep, pot, and video games. But if your natural tendency is introspection, I think a better motto is this: Live every day as if you were going to live forever.

Which is, by the way, true. But the afterlife isn’t an extended epilogue, where all the adventure is over and we get to sit on comfy sofas, reminiscing. Heaven isn’t Stevens’ stagnant paradise, where “the boughs / Hang always heavy in that perfect sky, / Unchanging.” Heaven is where the story begins.

There are too many loose ends in this life, too many unanswered questions, for it to be anything but a prologue.

1 I don’t mean that the poem itself is horsesh★t, just my interpretation of it at the time, which may or may not have been Stevens’ and in any event does not fully account for the poem. I still think it’s one of the most beautiful poems ever written. Even C. S. Lewis notes that melancholy does bear some mysterious resemblance to Joy. But this is too much to go into in a footnote.
2 I’m thinking of that Calvin & Hobbes strip, of course. I’d link to it but they’re impossible to find online. Anyway, here’s a few good, but unrelated, strips.

No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief,
More pangs will, schooled at forepangs, wilder wring.
Comforter, where, where is your comforting?
Mary, mother of us, where is your relief?1

It was bad, dear readers, very bad. I spent last night in the lowest parts of the pit, and all day today the black dog gnawed at my leg, and only gnawed harder when I tried to kick his face in. That’ll teach me to boast about how well I’m doing, how fine I am, and how out I’ve got everything figured.2

Crying didn’t help, and neither did yelling. Talking to myself, talking to God; I didn’t have any answers, and neither did he. Came home, cried some more, tried not to punch anything. Finally settled down, after Compline, enough to be able to write something. I won’t even look at it today, just going to delete the whole thing. You think you know maudlin? Baby, you ain’t seen maudlin ’till you’ve seen me blog in the middle of a good old-fashioned funk.

A good night’s sleep didn’t clear it up, so tonight after the gym and a quick dinner, I got out the cigarettes and the kleenex and called Father T. I told him about my frustration, my anger, my depression. My feeling that I had failed, again, to be the man I wanted to be. How I don’t usually feel this bad but I never feel all that good, either; how feeling bad was a kind of relief, because at least I was feeling something, and maybe that something was closer to the truth.

Answer me, tell me I’m doing something wrong; tell me I feel this way because I’m living the wrong way. Tell me that everything is okay, and that I just can’t see it because I’m not wise enough, tell me that everything will be fine, and that I just can’t get there because I’m not strong enough. Tell me, tell me. I can take it.

That wasn’t what he told me.

FT: What you want is something real. We’re all wired for it. It’s just that your wires are pointing in the wrong direction.
SG: Yes…
FT: We’re all meant for love and for fulfillment. It’s the fulfillment that a man finds in marriage.
SG: Yes…
FT: Do you get what I’m saying?
SG: Yes, yes, I get it. Sure. But what I don’t get is why I’m meant for something that I never get to have.
FT: Yes.
SG:
FT: I don’t have an answer. I wish I had an answer. There is no answer.

That was the right answer.

Fr. T, if you had told me that I was wrong to feel how I feel, I wouldn’t have believed you. If you had told me that God was good and the world was beautiful, I might have believed you, but I would have hung up.

Instead, you gave me the truth that so many people think is too hard for me and for those like me. You respected me and trusted me, as they do not. You told me that I am called to a kind of martyrdom. That the world is difficult, and that there is no answer, not here, to the question of man’s woundedness. That my SSA is not fair, any more than Down Syndrome is fair, or poverty is fair.

That those who cry “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace, are lying. I am not okay, the world is not okay, none of us is okay. If you’ve never noticed it, then you’re not paying attention.

Being a secularist means believing that there is nothing wrong with the world or with us — or anyway, nothing that can’t be fixed by politics and technology. Thank God I’m a Christian. We don’t lie to ourselves; we know the world is broken, and all of us are broken with it. We know evil is real. And we know where to take it. We take it to the cross, we take it to the altar.

So I’m not okay, not today. But you’d be surprised how good I feel about it.

1 The whole thing is here.
2 Here in the writing business we call that “parallelism.” Not to be confused with its close cousin, “poor sentence construction.”

Well, dear readers, I have been in a funk. I like the word “funk” because it doesn’t allow me to take it too seriously. DEPRESSION is something medical and serious, it’s a CONDITION. A funk, on the other hand, passes and then you go about your business. Just something that happens, like a summer cold.

Here’s a snippet from George MacDonald1 that sums things up:

They had a feeling, or a feeling had them, till another feeling came and took its place. When a feeling was there, they felt as if it would never go; when it was gone they felt as if it had never been; when it returned, they felt as if it had never gone.2

That’s the way, isn’t it? Moods come and go, and it’s foolish to take any one of them for the way life is. This is true of happy moods as well as sad ones.

Not that all joy is temporary; but all states of mind are temporary. The trick is having a solid foundation, something that lets you hold on to peace even in the middle of an emotional storm; so that, no matter how bad it gets, the bottom never drops out. That’s why the Psalmist is always calling God a rock: something solid, something that isn’t dislodged even when the sea is angry.

I was about to quote St. Paul about “the peace which surpasses all understanding”, but when I looked it up I found that the passage is even more relevant than I remembered:

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.3

Rejoice! All the time! St. Paul isn’t saying “be in a happy mood all the time.” If he were, he would be asking the impossible. Telling a depressed person, “Cut it out and be happy!” is about as helpful as telling a poor person, “Be warm! Get fed!”4

But he isn’t doing that. There’s a kind of rejoicing which can be done in the middle of depression, and a kind of peace that lasts through storms.

It has something to do with “prayer and petition, with thanksgiving” — maybe especially the last part. Giving thanks for all of it: the good and the bad, the puppies and the fleas, the light and the shadow. If you can’t think of anything else, give thanks that you have toes and that the sky is blue. Once you get rolling, it gets easier.

Well. Easy enough to say. I’m working on it. Time for my evening prayers.

1 Do you know about George MacDonald?? My parents read me The Golden Key when I was very young, and it left a bigger impression on my imagination than any other 30 pages I can think of. It’s in the public domain, and the full text is here if you want it.
2 From George MacDonald: An Anthology, edited by my other hero, C. S. Lewis. It’s on Google Books here.
3 Philippians 4:4-7.
4 I’m thinking of James 2:16.