Finding Joy While Seeking Justice

NOTE: I wrote this reflection in response to a reading for my Encore Impact seminar at United Theological Seminary. Thus it will feel a bit like an “insider’s conversation.” We are beginning to ask the question, “What Promise do you serve?” as part of our “next steps” discernment. This isn’t a fully polished essay–it’s more a simmering pot. But go ahead and try a spoonful. 🙂

Finding Joy While Seeking Justice
David R. Weiss, March 14, 2018

Frederick Buechner describes vocation (that sense of purposeful calling, perhaps “the promise we serve”) as that place where your own deep gladness meets the world’s deep need. Yet, in most of our lives vocation gets reduced to “career”—the skills we acquire and trade to earn the money to buy a life that at least tries to pass for “success” by society’s yardstick. As Nancy suggested in our second session, those of us feeling jaded about that yardstick (regardless of how much “success” we’ve notched on it) may be exactly the ones whose disorientation represents the birth pangs of a reorientation to purpose.

But here’s the rub. Because we’ve been socialized all (or most of) our lives to play the game set before us—and “socialization” is a nice way of saying we’ve been trained to serve powers and principalities rather than Promise—it’s easy, even as we “wake up,” to mistake obligation for purpose. I’m “supposed” to work for social justice. It’s my “obligation” to leave the planet (hopefully including our politics, or churches, and our society, too) in better shape for those coming after me. Well, yes. Sort of. But only in the shallowest—and usually self-defeating—way.

My experience in social justice work is that often those doing the organizing (usually those with an excess of extravert energy that eclipses my introvert leanings) are so damned eager to make change that they plug any body they can find into a task that needs doing without asking—or even seeming to care—whether doing that task will be life-giving, joy-bringing to the person doing it.

Thankfully, the George Lakey article (albeit too subtly if you ask me) acknowledges the folly of this. Near the bottom of page two he writes, “The organizer, on the other hand, experiences joy (emphasis mine) from collecting people . . .” That’s the key facet of discernment: joy.

There are a zillion things that must happen for a just world to become. But it is a supreme act of faith to affirm that we are diverse people precisely so that making justice might ring with joy for each of one of us—as though THIS is the divinely wrought warp and weave of the cosmos’ moral fabric. This is the heart and truth in Joseph Campbell’s encouragement to “Follow your bliss”: there is joy on the path to justice. That isn’t to say there won’t be grunt work along the way. But no one serves their Promise by merely being a grunt. We were made for more.

Two last thoughts.

First, on the nature of joy. Joy (in its vocational expression) is only rarely simple happiness. More accurately put: Joy is the profound inner awareness that one’s gifts—indeed one’s deepest self—is (even if only momentarily) in alignment with the universal longing of life to flourish. This alignment, which is more or less as unique as each of us is unique, is life-giving and joy-bringing, even in the midst of arduous work. Sometimes my joy is not about the smile on my face; in fact, more often it is the smile deep in my soul—a smile that bears meaning even when there’s a full fledge shit storm going on around me. 🙂

Second, on my particular role. I am nothing, if not a poet-writer: a word artist. Someone whose joy lies in using words artfully to provoke, inspire, imagine. At times to decry what is. At others to declare what might be. This is powerful, essential work in social change. So I was surprised/disappointed to find an absence of any direct recognition (in Lakey’s piece) of Artist as a key role. Yes, you can “smuggle” it in as an adjunct to any of the other four roles, but by now you know I have a spotty history with being adjunct. (On this point the Kaleo Center description of the eight dimensions of Social Transformation Praxis is more helpful as I can more easily see room for art-poetry-writing to shine across these dimensions in ways that respect its independence—its necessary surprise—rather than subsuming it to the utility of others. That’s dense, I know, but important to put into words, even if they’re muddy.)

So, the vocational question for me is Where does the joy I find in being surprised by what words can do find a welcome home in work to change the world for justice? Your question will almost certainly be different than mine, but make sure that JOY has a place in how you frame it.

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