In college, I double majored in philosophy and psychology. Here is a question I never ask a young person in college: “What are you going to do with that degree?” I rather tired of answering it years ago. There are even jokes associated with being a philosophy major: How do you get a philosophy major off your front porch? Pay him for the pizza. What kind of car do philosophy majors drive? Uber.
Yet there are encouraging moments. When the Wizard in “The Wizard of Oz” tells the Scarecrow that he has all the brains he needs, only lacking a diploma, and awards him a Th.D. (“Doctor of Thinkology”), the Scarecrow recites: “The sum of the square roots of any two sides of an isosceles triangle is equal to the square root of the remaining side,” followed by, “Oh joy, rapture.” Joy and rapture in thinking—words to warm the heart of a philosophy major.
Ten years ago, philosopher Leszek Kolakowski, who was expelled from his teaching position in Poland in 1968 for political reasons and later taught at Oxford, published an essay in which he argued that “happiness as an immutable condition is not accessible to us.” Fun thought, perhaps one that would have been best left in the confines of small philosophy departments. Not a lot of joy and rapture there. Kolakowski reasoned that “being truly human involves the ability to feel compassion, to participate in the pain and joy of others.” If so, then happiness, as an immutable condition, is not possible. “This is not just because we experience suffering,” he said. “It is also because, even if we are not suffering at a given moment, even if we are able to experience physical and spiritual pleasure and moments beyond time, in the eternal present of love, we can never forget the existence of evil and the misery of the human condition. We participate in the suffering of others.” While permanent, unbroken happiness is impossible in this argument, he posits that “there is no reason to maintain that that the things we experience as good—aesthetic delight, erotic bliss, physical and intellectual pleasures of all kinds, enriching conversation, and the love of friends— must all be seen as pure negation. Such experiences strengthen us; they make us spiritually healthier” (The New York Review of Books, December 20, 2012).
Psychologist Mary Pipher, in a recent guest essay for The New York Times, offers some thoughts along the same lines: “I am leading a double life. Underneath my ordinary good life, I am in despair for the world. Some days, the news is such that I need all my inner strength to avoid exhaustion, anxiety and depression…The most informed and compassionate among us are the most vulnerable to despair.” Yet in her essay, Pipher discusses skills for navigating such a world, including doing the good we can and taking time to appreciate beauty. She encourages us to “balance our despair with joy.” She concludes, “Life is so terrible and beautiful at the same time. Do I have the capacity to hold it all in my heart?”
There is much in the world to weary us, to weigh down our souls, and to break our hearts. There is war causing death and untold suffering. Our climate is creating more storms, deeper droughts, torrential rains. We as a human community contribute to this changing climate and we have been slow to respond. Economic news has been more bad than good. The capacity of the human community to draw deep lines around “us” and “them” seems as strong as ever and as cruel as ever. The divisiveness in our country is stark and runs deep. The United Methodist Church is separating, but there are fewer pathways forward than many would like. And the reality is that as our church separates, church affiliation across the U.S. continues to decline. Watching the news can feel like spiritual self-flagellation.
Yet we cannot walk away. If we are to be truly human, as Kolakowski reminds us, we need to understand and participate in the pain and suffering of the world. Our scriptures speak words encouraging us to remember that when one part of the body suffers, we all suffer.
At the same time, we should not wallow in discouragement. We should not allow ourselves to be overwhelmed. We need to take time and enjoy moments where we celebrate, ponder in awe, know joy, appreciate beauty. It is okay, even necessary, to bracket out some of the suffering for a time.
I think of the words of the poet Wendell Berry:
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be…
I come into the peace of wild things…
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free
I also think of the words of Sister Maura Eichner in one her poems:
Eat bread. Drink wine. Try to sing the song
of Christ. Live life. If you can dance, dance.
Everywhere grace awaits. Desire to love to love.
These poets echo encouragement from our scriptures: “Rejoice in the Lord always, and I will say Rejoice” (Philippians 4:4). “There is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink, and find enjoyment in their toil…God gives wisdom and knowledge with joy” (Ecclesiastes 2:24, 26). And if you really want a bit of a scriptural surprise encouraging taking time for joy, read again “The Song of Songs.”
The world is terrible and beautiful. Take time for the beauty. Go for a walk on a warm summer evening. Listen to music. Dance if you like, even if you are by yourself. Hold the hand of a loved one. Cuddle a child. Appreciate a painting. Swim in a cool lake on a hot day. Savor a favorite food. Take in the aroma while it is being prepared. Watch the fireflies at night. Pray a prayer only of joy and gratitude. Read a poem. Read a story. Watch a movie. Laugh at a silly joke. Add to this list.
Such moments are good for the soul. They increase the capacity of our hearts to hold the beautiful and terrible. They strengthen us. They make us spiritually healthier. I think they are also acts of profound faith. We trust that God in Jesus Christ loves this world, and that God is always at work in this world toward peace, justice, reconciliation, generosity, care, Beloved Community, beauty, and love. Trusting that, it does us good to bask in such goodness for a bit, and to do so regularly. We don’t ignore the deep pain and suffering of the world, but we don’t give it exclusive rights to dominate our souls.
Did I just take quite a lot of time to encourage you to take a moment or two to enjoy yourselves? Yes, but remember, I was a philosophy major.
Bishop David Bard is interim bishop for the Minnesota Conference. He also serves as resident bishop for the Michigan Conference.
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church