I recently asked some friends to define “Joy.” I am using the capital “J” because this is part of The Pipe Series and, as you know, The Pipe Series chronicles my findings about all things C.S. Lewis, and Lewis capitalized “J.”
Now, the definition of Joy ranges, according to my friends, from a cup of coffee, to a kind of certainty you and I experience in the face of great pain or loss—this certainty comes from God. We can experience Joy even in sadness because, according to my little survey, we place our trust in a God who is sovereign.
“He’s got the whole world, in his hands; he’s got the whole wide world, in his hands.”
I do not disagree with these perspectives on Joy, yet. In fact, one friend reminded me of a bible study I led, during my undergrad years, on the book of James and it was titled, “Joy vs. Happiness.” So, I still believe that Joy, from a Christian point of view, transcends mere happiness. But that is another post.
Today, I want to quickly sketch out some brimming thoughts on Joy with regard to pleasure. And you must forgive me, for I am without the bulk of my sources at the moment and though I will reference Lewis, I cannot include (nor do I remember at the moment) the sources—a heinous sin, I know.
I want to consider, briefly, how Joy and pleasure co-mingle and how they also expand our world.
Hedonics, Not Hedonism
Wesely Kort wrote a fine book on Lewis titled Lewis: Then and Now. In it he suggests Lewis stood on the side of pleasure. He drew a line between the modern version of pleasure, which tends to fall on the side of “pleasure as the only good,” and a version of pleasure Lewis referred to as hedonics, the “science or philosophy of pleasure.”
One perspective views pleasure as an end, a goal. The other, looks at pleasure and how the use of it can and does affect our everyday experience.
Kort says, “Pleasure draws the attention of a person outward toward something external. It counters self-preoccupation.”
This is interesting, because I always thought pleasure lent itself to self-preoccupation. But on further reflection, taking pleasure in an object—like a cup of coffee—acknowledges its value.
“Oh, this cup of Sumatra Blend is knocking my socks off!”
I am admitting the coffees intrinsic value. I am sensing the world in all its caffeinated glory.
So, there is an initial pleasurable reaction to the cup of coffee and, arguably, the pleasure ends there. But a step beyond pleasure stands Joy.
A Good Pain
Joy, according to Kort, is the “exhilarating moment when one is drawn out of oneself by the lure of something grander, higher, and elusive. I think, if we’re honest, the Sumatra Blend—in all its velvety goodness—does not lure us into or out into something grander and elusive. This is arguable but really I don’t care to argue it.
My discovery here, then, points me to an intense experience upon the engagement of something we usually consider beautiful. Lewis, in Surprised By Joy, described his first encounter with a currant flower at the age of six as something that elicited great Joy—pangs of Joy, even. A pang is a painful emotion.
Why painful Joy? Why the sudden sharpness of emotion after looking at something so beautiful as the currant bush?
For Lewis, the currant bush with all its little flowers awakened something deep within him. He didn’t know what it was as a boy, and he couldn’t quite grasp it after he read George MaDonald’s Phantastes as a teenage. But there was, however, a desire quickened within him, a potential. It was elusive because he couldn’t seize it, though he was keenly aware of its existence.
The Whole Enchilada
Kort tells us that for Lewis there was no gap between our minds—what our minds (and presumably, our imaginations) experience—and what lies outside of them. For Lewis life was about all of it, together. We could, in fact “know” and we could get there through the combined engagement of pleasure and imagination (the mind).
An interesting side note here is—and I’m about to go way off the reservation—what some theorize lies behind the brilliant Coleridge poem “Kubla Khan.” Coleridge was able to utilize his imagination in a way that brought him closer to the universe. I’m still looking into Coleridge and his “pleasure dome,” suffice it to say there is something especially brilliant about the way art, poetry in particular, as an imaginative device can bring both the reader (or viewer) and the poet into a closer and more intense understanding of the natural world. I know, I know—and no, I’m not taking opiates in the supposed Coleridgian fashion in order to experience what he did. I live in Oxford, not Colorado.
But there is something there, isn’t there—about the way Lewis views pleasure as being a whole life kind of experience? Lewis experienced a supreme pleasure in many things as a young boy: books, flowers, poetry, and an enchanted garden his brother Warren built on a tin lid.
And it was through the pleasure of these little beauty encounters that Lewis experienced the "stab of Joy"—that something indiscernible, unfathomable, that lured him, his body, his psyche away, into that “deep romantic chasm which slanted / Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover!”
Lewis, many years after those initial beauty encounters, found the God of the Christian faith; the “One Thing,” the source of all his desire—desires awakened by a sense of Joy, a derivative of pleasure.
Be aware today, O fellow traveler, and friend. We do not merely walk through the mundane world. We walk through a pleasure dome of experience and wonder. And if we’re careful and really paying attention, we might—just might—find ourselves falling down into that slanted chasm,” landing next to the Holy One himself.
For where do the snows and all their wonder and Joy come from, but from the one who lures us along in a cosmic dance of beauty and wonder in order that we might live and see daily see his face?
Timothy Willard is the author of five books, including Longing For More: Daily Reflections on Finding God in the Rhythms of Life and the forthcoming The Life-Giving Adventure of Chasing Beauty (Eerdmans, 2019). He has collaborated on over 20 books and has written, consulted and served as spiritual director for organizations such as Chick-fil-A, Catalyst, Q Ideas and Praxis Labs. When he’s not riding the trails in the Appalachian mountains you can find him by the fire with his three daughters and his wife making up stories about Tom the back yard badger. He lives somewhere in the south Charlotte woods.