A friend recently asked me:
Have you ever felt a sense of futility? Wondering if anything you do actually makes a difference?”
The first thought to mind for me was, You mean that feeling that’s always on the edge of my mind? You’ve gone decades of life without it as a permanent companion? Wow. I should be so lucky!
My friend had been through a difficult time recently, on top of personal tragedies over the past year (and all that on top of the all the problems that came with living through a pandemic), so I understood where the question took root from. But I was also struck that it took all that to trigger it.
Which is where we’re different. For me, that sense of futility has been a lifelong companion, a familiar, almost. At its best it’s an awareness that we’re all playing little games within our minds and with one another all the time, whether we’re aware of it or not. At its worst it’s an overbearing sense that the weight of my existence is almost too much to bear and there’s not really any point to anything.
It’s not quite depression — or even dysthymia, really. But it’s given me greater empathy for people living with those disorders. In a tiny way it’s helped me better imagine their experience, and that’s helpful for my work as a psychiatrist. (I do think it might make me prone to being depressed, but I’ve not quite gotten there. Yet.)
It’s more like the quote commonly attributed to WB Yeats (but more likely originally describing him):
Being Irish, he had an abiding sense of tragedy, which sustained him through temporary periods of joy.
“An abiding sense of tragedy” is exactly it. I’m not complaining about it, to be clear. It’s what it is, and I’m only acknowledging that it is. It gets tiring, sure. But it is and I’ve made my peace with that.
I know there are Christians, some of them friends (not any of my closest ones) who might be aghast at this, or at least be uncomfortable with it. I know there are many whose understanding of Christian faith is that it’s supposed to be protective of this kind of thing. To such people, hearing me say I’ve made my peace with “an abiding sense of tragedy” might come across as a sort of surrender to something I should be resisting.
Except, I do resist it.
The problem is that people often hear “accepting the way I am” as meaning “lacking any interest in being better.” But that’s not the only thing it can mean. It can also mean — as I intend it — that I’m accepting that this is my starting point, even as I try to move beyond it. I accept the way I am as a first step to resisting simply staying that way. If anything, I’ve come to find that refusing to accept your starting point leaves you more likely to remain stuck there.
And it’s all the more interesting that a number of my fellow Christians would respond that way when a key landmark on my journey into faith was discovering the book of Ecclesiastes in university, with its repeated declarations that “all is vanity.” It was the first time in my life the Bible took on any personal relevance for me. It simultaneously validated the existential crises of my early adult life while also hinting that wasn’t all there was to it. It suggested I wasn’t crazy for feeling like life was meaningless, but I also didn’t have to remain that way.
And so I fight for joy.
After all my name — Ayomide — means, “My joy has come.” For me that happens to mean recovering that joy every day. To paraphrase Jack London’s famous quote about creativity, I can’t simply afford to wait for it to come, I have to go after it “with a club.”
So it makes sense to me that one my Christian faith also instructs me to be joyful.
If you think of joy as simply as emotion, that makes no sense. It makes all the sense in the world, though, if you look at it as state that’s accessible through several doorways: by way of emotion, for one, but also by way of activity, experiences, interactions and even memories. In that sense an instruction to be joyful comes to be not about feeling a certain way, but about going into a certain mental space, through whatever doorway.
Not simply “feel” joy (which isn’t really in one’s control), but act in the direction of joy.
And so everyday, I wake up and get to remind myself that joy isn’t just an emotion, it’s a choice. And everyday I get to fight for it, knowing that between my personality and everyday life, my default is to head in the opposite direction. And every day I get to go through one of many doorways, from prayer and Bible reading to thoughtful books and delightful movies, to conversations with friends and reflecting on things I’m grateful for.
Sure, some days I’m lucky enough to just have my joy simply come without my having to fight for it. And other times I simply wallow in my own tiresome self and my ever-present sense of questioning why I do anything and if anything has any real meaning. But knowing that I get to fight means I’m that more likely to when I must.
I do have a name to live up to, after all.