07/01/2010 11:22 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Politics of Joy: God's Equation

It's Thursday night Chi Kung, and we are cultivating energy between our palms and then our own palms and a partner's. Our teacher instructs us to remember a time when we felt pure joy, to recall it vividly, completely in every cell, to embody joy in this moment. Then he says, "Bring this joy into your hands. Offer it as a gift to the world."

Joy springs, wells, swells between our palms. I see joy spilling over the world, spreading over the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, touching all the lives, feathered, finned and human, that have been and are being so devastated by the ongoing disaster. The joy stays with me after I leave class and into the next day. I realize it has been a long time since I have allowed myself to open to joy -- not since April 20th at least. Since then, whether or not I am consciously thinking of the oil disaster, I feel it in my body, I carry it with me. Not as a noble, if futile, gesture, but simply because, like all of us, I am seventy percent ocean. How can all be well with me if all is not well with the sea?

A long time ago, I had a dream in which a religious authority reproached me for feeling joy in a world where there was hunger, poverty, oppression, war (this was before environmental depredation had made the list). In the dream I dared to answer the authority: "Joy is part of God's equation." Since I flunked algebra and am mathematically inept, equation was and is an unusual metaphor for me. Perhaps that is why the dream phrase stayed with me all these years, even as the internalized voice of the reproachful authority continues to rebuke me.

As to whether my vision of joy spilling from my hands over the earth had any effect on the oil disaster, I remain at best agnostic. When we pray for something or someone, we ourselves are changed and may be moved to act more effectively and compassionately. The effect of the vision on me was to illuminate how much dread and depression I have been carrying. I am not alone. As a counselor, I have noticed that people are not only coping with personal crises but are also chronically anxious about the world itself: economic uncertainty, the wars we are waging, political upheavals, and ecological disaster. The revised and extended list from my dream. Most people do their best to help in some way; some activists have clear callings. But many people also feel overwhelmed, helpless, or chronically guilty: "If I did more, if I consumed less..."

Joy is not a betrayal of sorrow for a suffering world; it is companion and counterpart. Joy can be an offering, an act of courage and encouragement. A healthy cell supporting a body that is struggling to heal. A strong hand extended to someone who is hanging off a cliff edge. Maybe what we do can never be enough, maybe no change we can make is radical enough. Maybe we won't make it. Yet we can dare to know joy if only for a moment here and there, to embody it, to offer it to each other and to the world, to figure it into God's mysterious, insoluble equation.