Just this November I found myself feeling despondent, dull, and dreary. The gray days of early winter had started, a family member was down with cancer; all these things certainly contributed, but I knew that being depressed, gloomy, and uninspired was not the right response at all.
Then suddenly, in the midst of a community celebration, a schoolboy started to read from Martin Luther King: “Only love can cast out hatred, only light can bring an end to darkness.” A curious and wonderful lightening of mood stole into my heart, and I realized that my strenuous efforts to fight off the effects of the dank, cold weather and other somber realities were actually only bringing darkness inside. Like those who struggle in quicksand, you only sink deeper when you rely solely on yourself.
Yes, there is a light that can penetrate any situation, but it is not self-generated. Our part is to be open, to allow it to live in us. That is how joy comes to us; we can’t just make it.
It is a lesson I will never forget. Whether I go to an old folks’ home and meet the numb and despairing stares of warehoused seniors, or meet shell-shocked parents who have lost a son to inexplicable youthful wildness, it is not my painted-on smile that will make any difference for them. It will be the light and joy that I allow to flourish in me. It is amazing how much joy and confidence actually enter our lives if we stop trying to force happy faces and happy feelings. Even really stressful days can be met with a serenity and assurance that is amazing.
Jean Vanier knew what stressful days could be. He started the L’Arche communities in 1964 with a handful of residents; today there 153 communities worldwide and growing. Many attributed this to Jean’s sunny smile (nearly six feet and six inches from the ground). People who met him soon realized that his joy was real: it didn’t vanish on rainy days, or when opposition to his cause erupted. He treated everyone with patience, like a fond uncle waiting for the tantrums to pass.
To me, this is an indication that Jean was moved by the power of love and saw this power as something that he could tap into, something that transformed his life. This brought joy, and freed him from the anxious life of those who work without recognizing Providence, who think they have to arrange everything themselves and by their own strength. When people – even well-meaning – pursue their goals without strength from above, they inevitably end in conflict. Stepping back from our plans and our inner turmoil allows us to realize we are much closer to wanting the same thing than we ever imagined. Every day is a test that invites us to choose between mediocrity and petty complains, or serenity and inner vitality.
Only the light from above – imagine it like the sun over the Sahara desert – can lift us over the mud puddles of despondency. And if you truly open yourself to this light, you’ll experience the joy of seeing surprise on peoples’ faces when you’re happy and you’re not supposed to be.