If you ever tweet smack about Joy Marie Clarkson, she may have the last laugh by turning your insult into a charmingly ironic book title. That’s what happened when she shared a thought on Twitter about something innocuous, like “tea or lipstick,” she recalled during a “Christopher Closeup” interview (podcast below).
A disgruntled commenter soon replied to her, “This is disgusting! You are so aggressively happy!”
Joy thought about it and realized, “I am aggressively happy, because I think in this world that is so pervaded by cynicism…[and] difficult things…to have some kind of joy and happiness does take an act of at least assertiveness, if not aggression.”
Hence, Joy titled her book “Aggressively Happy: A Realists’s Guide to Believing in the Goodness of Life.” And the “realist” label is accurate because the book never descends into toxic positivity, which Joy describes as “an inability to deal with the actual griefs and heaviness of life.” In fact, she notes that her name, Joy Marie, means “joy in a sea of bitterness or sadness,” which, again, accurately reflects her personality.
Joy explained, “I am a person of extremes to some extent. So I’ve always felt…a deep enjoyment of life, of music, of taste, of color, and food, and love…and I’ve also felt very keenly the heaviness of the world, whether it was my own struggles with mental illness, or the people that I loved [who were] suffering, or just looking at the vast fragility of the world…So happiness for me has been…a cultivated thing or a habit. It’s not that you can just make yourself be happy. It’s that you slowly but surely till the ground of your life. You pull up the weeds. You water thankfulness every day. So that was part of what the book is wrestling with and hopefully, models a bit as well.”
Ironically, “Aggressively Happy” was inspired by an extended period of hardship for Joy, a period from which she emerged with wisdom and clarity about life and God. At the end of December one year, she had a mystical experience that told her the coming year would be one of suffering. Initially, she wrote it off as OCD or intrusive thoughts, but she soon learned this was a message meant to prepare her for what was to come.
“I feel like that period of my life was one of the first times I woke up to the fact that Jesus says, ‘In this life, you will have tribulation, but take heart for I have overcome the world.'” said Joy. “Having that sense of preparation made me feel like I wasn’t alone in it, that I was being guided through it. It helped me…get in touch with reality, which is that there will be difficult things. Then [it ushered] me into a posture towards life, which I have to learn again and again: to not be surprised by suffering and to know that it doesn’t undo the joy and beautiful things we experience. Also, to let it become something that softens you and makes you open to others and open to other people’s pain, and aware of God’s love in the midst of life.”
The comforting aspects of Joy’s faith did not just occur in the spiritual realm, but through tangible ways, such as an elderly priest at Holy Thursday Mass washing her feet and then kissing them in a gesture of humility. It’s not just about sitting in church trying to make yourself “believe harder,” she said, but rather about a sacramental experience of God’s grace.
Joy explained, “We experience these specific graces in the church, but also as Gerard Manley Hopkins says, ‘The world is charged with the grandeur of God.’ So from poetry to the beauty of nature to the comfort of the sacraments, those were all things that helped me know that God was with me, that I was never alone in suffering, and that the suffering was never the fundamental thing…It didn’t have the final word in my life.”
All that being said, Joy has struggled with doubt at various times. She doesn’t see it as strictly a bad thing, though, noting “there is this great consolation in wanting to be close to God.”
She feels a kinship to two characters in Dostoevsky’s novel “The Brothers Karamazov” because “it portrays someone who, with the best intentions of their heart, cannot believe in God – and someone who, with the best of intentions of their heart, chooses to [believe] anyway. I always have felt like I had both of those within me. A part of choosing to believe…or cultivating faith, practicing faith, is saying that my life is more sensible, more endurable in faith. And that the consolation that comes with faith can’t come from the outside. I have to take the step into faith to be able to receive its consolations. And so having that story in my mind has helped me know that God is faithful to me even when I waver in doubt.”
Among the consolations of looking at life through the eyes of faith is the belief “that at the heart of reality is goodness, is joy, and that in choosing to cultivate happiness, we are speaking to that reality.”
Still, there are people who view the world through a darker lens, seeing only its hardships and sufferings. While acknowledging that we can’t be happy all the time because we all endure seasons of challenge, Joy believes that view gives the darkness too much power over the light.
She explained, “There’s a great quote by Jack Gilbert, the American poet, who says, ‘To only attend to evil would be to praise the devil.’ So attend to what is good and beautiful and true, but not in a way that ignores all the difficult things of life…There can be this idea that if…someone in the world is suffering, you’re being selfish because you’re being happy…I think a lot of this is a misplaced sense of self-righteousness. It’s like, ‘Well, if I’m sitting around being cynical and unhappy, I’m more righteous than everybody else because I’m more knowing.’ When in fact, you’re probably making life for everyone around you more difficult and unpleasant. So it’s not helping anyone on the other side of the world, it’s not helping anyone around you, and it’s not being attuned and thankful for what is in front of you.”
When Joy herself encounters problems nowadays, she tries to follow The Christophers’ approach of lighting a candle rather than cursing the darkness. She concluded, “I always start with the practical. One of the chapters in the book is called ‘Remember, You Have a Body.’ What I try to do is I…take a bath…eat something healthy, I’m going to sometimes literally light a candle. It’s amazing to me how much pleasure…lighting a candle can be. Then I think that friendship and companionship is one of the things that gives us the most light in this world, and that makes us courageous and brave. So I try to be intentional about cultivating and reaching out to friends. Sometimes when I’m encountering difficulties, trying to give kindness to other people is something that helps me feel better, because it also reminds me that I’m not just a victim to the rest of life. I can be an agent of positivity.
“Then I [rest] in God. There are times for wrestling, for shaking one’s fist at God and doing all the Psalmist activities. But I think also [about] trusting in God’s love for me, no matter what happens. Sometimes that takes the form of prayers and listening to a beautiful song and knowing that God made beautiful things in the world.”
(To listen to my full interview with Joy Marie Clarkson, click on the podcast link):