For the Sheer Joy of It

Photo by Lili Popper on Unsplash

This is the reason you shall do it. For it brings you a pleasure which is unalloyed, an unmitigated good. I don’t know what it might be for you, this thing. I can think of a handful of things for me: writing, driving (not commuting), reading a good book, going for a walk with my wife, playing with my kids until the giggles and shrieks mingle, building or fixing something with my son, and so on.

By dint of our individual natures and life experiences we will each have some set of activities which tap into some simple and primal creaturely mirth. My exhortation is: do that. It’s good. Obviously some caveats are in order, such as, don’t sin, since sin by definition does not satisfy nor is it aligned with who we were made to be. But aside from that, there is broad freedom here.

For some, there are kinds of manual work which fall into this category. Probably not shoveling – though who knows? I’m thinking of something a little bit more skilled which passes the time and brings pleasure. The pleasure should not be dependent on the accomplishment of some task or goal. The thing I have in mind is not done for the sake of productivity or efficiency; it is anti-utilitarian. It’s the kind of thing that fills in the open spaces on the hourly planner, which doesn’t really cross any items off any list, but which never feels like wasted time.

In short, it is good to do some things for the sheer joy of it, and not for any other purpose. There is something here which we share with other creatures. While animals are guided largely by instincts, they each have their own personalities and they also engage in playfulness which has no strict Darwinian logic to it, not that I am a Darwinian. Sometimes a dog just wants to run around the yard in big loops as fast as it can. There’s a pleasure inherent to the sensation of motion, balance, and even the aesthetics of a finely executed jump or swoop. See for example how the birds seem to enjoy playing in the wind, for the same reason children and child-hearted adults enjoy holding their hand out the car window on the highway, playing on the flowing air like the aileron of a jet.

If your life is so full of lists and efficiency and every-moment-scheduled activity such that there is no room for these kinds of things, or if the thought of it induces a mix of anxiety and guilt because you’re captive to an inflexible productivity mindset, I shake my finger at you, though in a friendly way.

My friend, we are human beings, not machines. We are mind, body, soul, and spirit, not algorithm, subroutine, and hydraulics. A human life, at a human pace, is one of those universal aspirations of all people everywhere (with varied manifestations of course). The French term, joie de vivre captures something of this essential joy in being. To lose this thing I’m trying to describe in any measure is to slide towards the mechanistic, robotic, slave-like inhumanity. Chesterton makes a related point in his chapter called The Maniac in the book Orthodoxy. Allow me to quote the relevant section:

The last thing that can be said of a lunatic is that his actions are causeless. If any human acts may loosely be called causeless, they are the minor acts of a healthy man; whistling as he walks; slashing the grass with a stick; kicking his heels or rubbing his hands. It is the happy man who does the useless things; the sick man is not strong enough to be idle. It is exactly such careless and causeless actions that the madman could never understand; for the madman (like the determinist) generally sees too much cause in everything. The madman would read a conspiratorial significance into those empty activities. He would think that the lopping of the grass was an attack on private property. He would think that the kicking of the heels was a signal to an accomplice. If the madman could for an instant become careless, he would become sane. Every one who has had the misfortune to talk with people in the heart or on the edge of mental disorder, knows that their most sinister quality is a horrible clarity of detail; a connecting of one thing with another in a map more elaborate than a maze. If you argue with a madman, it is extremely probable that you will get the worst of it; for in many ways his mind moves all the quicker for not being delayed by the things that go with good judgment. He is not hampered by a sense of humour or by charity, or by the dumb certainties of experience. He is the more logical for losing certain sane affections. Indeed, the common phrase for insanity is in this respect a misleading one. The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.

I rarely read Chesterton without a smile on. His writing is so colourful, even playful. His mind jumps around between ideas and is always running here and there on the page, the reader at times struggling to keep up. And then at the end of a few paragraphs he puts the finishing touches on some zany idea and it comes into focus for the reader with a shock, like having been led into the Sistine chapel in darkness and then having someone suddenly flip on the lights. (Does the Sistine chapel have artificial lights? My metaphor depends on it.) I remember when I first read this paragraph above, how delighted I was. I had never thought of reason and madness that way before, and it gave me a new and permanent enjoyment of little ’causeless’ and ‘useless’ actions. Children are, of course, the ultimate example of this. They are playfulness incarnate, and have much to teach us in this regard.

G. K. Chesterton, the so-called prince of paradox.

Another fine example comes from the movie Chariots of Fire, where a conflict arises between the gifted runner Eric Liddell and his ministry-focused sister. She thinks he should quit running since it accomplishes nothing for the kingdom, but he sees something in the running that she cannot – some worth that is in and of itself, not dependent on some other measurable accomplishment. “When I run, I feel God’s pleasure.” But lest this attitude be taken as a being fundamentally at odds with a life lived fully for God’s glory, I want to point out that after his epic performance in the 1924 Olympics, during which his conviction to keep the Sabbath engendered no small amount of publicity, he became a missionary to China where he eventually died at the age of 43, a prisoner in a Japanese internment camp during World War 2. His love, concern, and self-sacrificing generosity towards his fellow inmates left an indelible mark on those who survived.

Eric Liddell

There is an application here for those in demanding and important vocations, perhaps especially ministry, since it concerns eternal things. There is an understandable way of thinking that says something like I can’t possibly read a novel or take up a hobby or learn a new instrument when there are people suffering and I can do something about it. This can work for a while, but I see at least three problems with it. First, this mentality is at odds with the natural rhythms of work and rest that God has designed us for. This attitude leads towards burnout. Second, there is a messiah complex, or the seeds of it, in that approach. Third, a life crammed to the ceiling with work is not a good model for others to emulate. Those in ministry especially are to be ‘an example’ to regular folks. But a life with no margin, no niches carved out for the simple pleasures described above, is not balanced or healthy. This is not to say we should not work hard, put in long hours, or have certain seasons of especially intense exertion. One can do all those things and yet preserve the kind of childlikeness, freedom to rest, and simple pleasures I’ve been trying to describe.

So to return to my opening exhortation: go ahead and do that thing for the sheer joy of it. Who knows? You may even find yourself feeling God’s pleasure in it.

Christmas with Chesterton

Since reading it over ten years ago, I’ve had lodged in my mind an affectionate fascination with Chesterton’s Everlasting Man. It is a kind of intellectual tour de force of the history of religious thought as only possible from Chesterton’s singular mind and from the vantage point of the early 20th century. If you have some interest in understanding how paganism relates to Christianity, or how Christianity fulfills the philosophy of the classical era, you will enjoy it.

An early edition.

But this is a Christmas post, and so I want to walk you through a few selections from the first chapter of the second half of the book. The chapter is called The God in the Cave, referring to the tradition that the stable was actually a rocky cave. In this chapter Chesterton reflects on the symbolism and meaning of Christmas, teasing out implications from it that do not naturally spring to my mind. And yet, once I read them, they have a certain logic and an undeniable power. My goal here is to deepen your appreciation for Christmas and your wonder at the incarnation.

We start with a some paragraphs about the paradox of Christmas that of the very high and very big (God) united with the very small and very weak (a baby).

A mass of legend and literature, which increases and will never end, has repeated and rung the changes on that single paradox; that the hands that had made the sun and stars were too small to reach the huge heads of the cattle. Upon this paradox, we might almost say upon this jest, all the literature of our faith is founded. It is at least like a jest in this, that it is something which the scientific critic cannot see. He laboriously explains the difficulty which we have always defiantly and almost derisively exaggerated; and mildly condemns as improbable something that we have almost madly exalted as incredible; as something that would be much too good to be true, except that it is true. When that contrast between the cosmic creation and the little local infancy has been repeated, reiterated, underlined, emphasised, exulted in, sung, shouted, roared, not to say howled, in a hundred thousand hymns, carols, rhymes, rituals, pictures, poems, and popular sermons, it may be suggested that we hardly need a higher critic to draw our attention to something a little odd about it; especially one of the sort that seems to take a long time to see a joke, even his own joke.

… Any agnostic or atheist whose childhood has known a real Christmas has ever afterwards, whether he likes it or not, an association in his mind between two ideas that most of mankind must regard as remote from each other; the idea of a baby and the idea of unknown strength that sustains the stars. His instincts and imagination can still connect them, when his reason can no longer see the need of the connection; for him there will always be some savour of religion about the mere picture of a mother and a baby; some hint of mercy and softening about the mere mention of the dreadful name of God. …

In other words, this combination of ideas has emphatically, in the much disputed phrase, altered human nature. There is really a difference between the man who knows it and the man who does not. Omnipotence and impotence, or divinity and infancy, do definitely make a sort of epigram which a million repetitions cannot turn into a platitude. It is not unreasonable to call it unique. Bethlehem is emphatically a place where extremes meet.

It is true, isn’t it, that even after a hundred thousand hymns, that joining of divinity and infancy retains an inexhaustible power? We return to it again and again. Now we turn to a passage where Chesterton argues that Christmas turned the universe inside out, placed heaven under the earth, and in so doing set off a kind of revolution.

It might be suggested, in a somewhat violent image, that nothing had happened in that fold or crack in the great grey hills except that the whole universe had been turned inside out. I mean that all the eyes of wonder and worship which had been turned outwards to the largest thing were now turned inward to the smallest. […] But it is true in a sense that God who had been only a circumference was seen as a centre; and a centre is infinitely small. It is true that the spiritual spiral henceforward works inwards instead of outwards, and in that sense is centripetal and not centrifugal. The faith becomes, in more ways than one, a religion of little things.

Whether as a myth or a mystery, Christ was obviously conceived as born in a hole in the rocks primarily because it marked the position of one outcast and homeless. Nevertheless it is true, as I have said, that the cave has not been so commonly or so clearly used as a symbol as the other realities that surrounded the first Christmas. And the reason for this also refers to the very nature of that new world. It was in a sense the difficulty of a new dimension. Christ was not only born on the level of the world, but even lower than the world. The first act of the divine drama was enacted, not only on no stage set up above the sight-seer, but on a dark and curtained stage sunken out of sight; and that is an idea very difficult to express in most modes of artistic expression. It is the idea of simultaneous happenings on different levels of life. Something like it might have been attempted in the more archaic and decorative medieval art. But the more the artists learned of realism and perspective, the less they could depict at once the angels in the heavens and the shepherds on the hills, and the glory in the darkness that was under the hills. …But in the riddle of Bethlehem it was heaven that was under the earth.

There is in that alone the touch of a revolution, as of the world turned upside down. It would be vain to attempt to say anything adequate, or anything new, about the change which this conception of a deity born like an outcast or even an outlaw had upon the whole conception of law and its duties to the poor and outcast. It is profoundly true to say that after that moment there could be no slaves. There could be and were people bearing that legal title, until the Church was strong enough to weed them out, but there could be no more of the pagan repose in the mere advantage to the state of keeping it a servile state. Individuals became important, in a sense in which no instruments can be important. A man could not be a means to an end, at any rate to any other man’s end.

That last paragraph is quite something. Was the incarnation the beginning of the end for slavery? Perhaps the end was far too long in coming, but there is no question that it was a set of Christians acting on their Christian convictions who led the push to abolish slavery, not pagans or secularists. It was a Christian impulse to dignify the slave, and then to free him.

Later in the chapter he turns to mythology and philosophy, themes which he has developed in the first half of the book. So keep in mind that we are entering partway through a length discussion. Still, I think it is worth considering:

Mythology had many sins; but it had not been wrong in being as carnal as the Incarnation. But something of the ancient voice that was supposed to have rung through the graves, it could cry again, ‘We have seen, he hath seen us, a visible god.’ So the ancient shepherds might have danced, and their feet have been beautiful upon the mountains, rejoicing over the philosophers. But the philosophers had also heard.

It is still a strange story, though an old one, how they came out of orient lands, crowned with the majesty of kings and clothed with something of the mystery of magicians. That truth that is tradition has wisely remembered them almost as unknown quantities, as mysterious as their mysterious and melodious names; Melchior, Caspar, Balthazar. But there came with them all that world of wisdom that had watched the stars in Chaldea and the sun in Persia; and we shall not be wrong if we see in them the same curiosity that moves all the sages. They would stand for the same human ideal if their names had really been Confucius or Pythagoras or Plato. They were those who sought not tales but the truth of things, and since their thirst for truth was itself a thirst for God, they also have had their reward. But even in order to understand that reward, we must understand that for philosophy as much as mythology, that reward was the completion of the incomplete.

Such learned men would doubtless have come, as these learned men did come, to find themselves confirmed in much that was true in their own traditions and right in their own reasoning. Confucius would have found a new foundation for the family in the very reversal of the Holy Family; Buddha would have looked upon a new renunciation, of stars rather than jewels and divinity than royalty. These learned men would still have the right to say, or rather a new right to say, that there was truth in their old teaching. But after all these learned men would have come to learn. They would have come to complete their conceptions with something they had not yet conceived; even to balance their imperfect universe with something they might once have contradicted. Buddha would have come from his impersonal paradise to worship a person. Confucius would have come from his temples of ancestor-worship to worship a child.

You may, at this point, if you are a good evangelical Protestant like me, start to feel things are getting a bit slippery. Is he granting too much here? After all, aren’t these false religions (Confucianism, Buddhism, etc)? Yes — and whatever light and truth were or are in them cannot reconcile us to God. But I think a careful and generous reading of his argument dodges the heart of these concerns, which I share. In fact, one can see here the genesis of much of C.S. Lewis’ later apologetical approach, that of Christianity as a fulfillment of more than the Old Testament, but of everything that was good about every system of belief anywhere — rather than a repudiation of it all.

Chesterton at 17, before growing into his girth, and judging by his face, perhaps also his mirth.

Skipping down a bit, he returns to the Magi and the long history of mysticism and philosophy which they represented.

Here it is the important point that the Magi, who stand for mysticism and philosophy, are truly conceived as seeking something new and even as finding something unexpected. That tense sense of crisis which still tingles in the Christmas story and even in every Christmas celebration, accentuates the idea of a search and a discovery. The discovery is, in this case, truly a scientific discovery. For the other mystical figures in the miracle play; for the angel and the mother, the shepherds and the soldiers of Herod, there may be aspects both simpler and more supernatural, more elemental or more emotional. But the wise Men must be seeking wisdom, and for them there must be a light also in the intellect. …

The philosophy of the Church is universal. The philosophy of the philosophers was not universal. Had Plato and Pythagoras and Aristotle stood for an instant in the light that came out of that little cave, they would have known that their own light was not universal. It is far from certain, indeed, that they did not know it already. Philosophy also, like mythology, had very much the air of a search. It is the realisation of this truth that gives its traditional majesty and mystery to the figures of the Three Kings; the discovery that religion is broader than philosophy and that this is the broadest of religions, contained within this narrow space. The Magicians were gazing at the strange pentacle with the human triangle reversed; and they have never come to the end of their calculations about it. For it is the paradox of that group in the cave, that while our emotions about it are of childish simplicity, our thoughts about it can branch with a never-ending complexity. And we can never reach the end even of our own ideas about the child who was a father and the mother who was a child.

I love the description of that Christmas scene as one which is limitless in its profundity and simplicity — we shall never reach the end of it. That’s something worth pondering this Christmas as we sit by the fire after dinner. Well this has gone long enough, but I leave you with two last paragraphs near the end of this remarkable chapter. Here Chesterton puts his finger on something of the unique ethos and spirit of Christmas, and the way it takes a hold on our minds and memories like nothing else.

Christmas for us in Christendom has become one thing, and in one sense even a simple thing. But like all the truths of that tradition, it is in another sense a very complex thing. Its unique note is the simultaneous striking of many notes; of humility, of gaiety, of gratitude, of mystical fear, but also of vigilance and of drama. It is not only an occasion for the peacemakers any more than for the merry-makers; it is not only a Hindu peace conference any more than it is only a Scandinavian winter feast. There is something defiant in it also; something that makes the abrupt bells at midnight sound like the great guns of a battle that has just been won. All this indescribable thing that we call the Christmas atmosphere only hangs in the air as something like a lingering fragrance or fading vapour from the exultant explosion of that one hour in the Judean hills nearly two thousand years ago. But the savour is still unmistakable, and it is something too subtle or too solitary to be covered by our use of the word peace. …

The truth is that there is a quite peculiar and individual character about the hold of this story on human nature; it is not in its psychological substance at all like a mere legend or the life of a great man. It does not exactly in the ordinary sense turn our minds to greatness; to those extensions and exaggerations of humanity which are turned into gods and heroes, even by the healthiest sort of hero-worship. It does not exactly work outwards, adventurously, to the wonders to be found at the ends of the earth. It is rather something that surprises us from behind, from the hidden and personal part of our being; like that which can some times take us off our guard in the pathos of small objects or the blind pieties of the poor. It is rather as if a man had found an inner room in the very heart of his own house, which he had never suspected; and seen a light from within. It is as if he found something at the back of his own heart that betrayed him into good.

Thanks for reading, and Merry Christmas.