SERVICE AND THE JOY OF MAKING A DIFFERENCE

Barbara Ervay

1940-2021

According to David Brooks, New York Times columnist and author, there is a difference between living a happy life and one filled with joy.  Joy is said to come from serving others,

Douglas Abrams’ book about the relationship between the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu underscores that point.

And that serving oneself is never a source of true joy.

A kind of contentment or happiness comes from sharing in the love of our families and friends. We can be fulfilled in minor ways by pleasant diversions some call a “bucket list.” 

We can revel in the little but significant things our earth shares with us:  aromatic flowers, scenic vistas, exotic and delicious food, the plethora of animal life, and the geological and plant diversity found on our wonderful planet.

Day to day contentment, happiness, and fulfillment are fundamental goals in life. They constitute a foundation for being human and part of a magnificent universe.

But they are not what marketers want us to believe when enticing us to buy products or services they offer. Their kind of conjured up happiness glitters with superficial facades, which are temporary kinds of euphoria at best.

They do not bring us joy.

*******************

Decades ago I was intrigued by research findings that discovered good salaries in a workplace do not make us happy.

Researchers found that good salaries and benefits make us NOT unhappy. But they do not make us happy.

And they certainly do not bring joy to our lives.

In other words, happiness has nothing to do with being not unhappy.

Not unhappy is a neutral middle ground or emotional void. It allows us to comfortably exist in a vacuum devoid of real meaning, or anything that transcends the routine of living.

The routine of living, with occasional blips of gaiety can make us think we are happy.  Especially if those blips are associated with people we love and enjoy being with.

Sometimes we feel giddy when winning prizes or receiving an unexpected award or sum of money.

But that feeling of euphoria is temporary. Never long-lasting or a source of ongoing contentment.

Somehow, we Americans have lost that insight and continue to inflate capitalistic notions that happiness is caused by the acquisition of more. The emphasis on the gaining of more creates a social dormancy, an unenthusiastic acceptance of the status quo that causes society to remain docile and submissive.  

That statement is no attack on capitalism.  Capitalism stimulates incentive and nurtures a dynamic marketplace, something socialistic countries cannot duplicate.  Ambition is, after all, a feeling that stimulates and excites.

But unfortunately, capitalistic enterprise can result in either euphoria or crushing depression.  And euphoria, as wonderful as it seems, leads to the need to acquire even more. And depression based on loss can either motivate or destroy utterly.

There is now a debate among advocates of capitalism. Mostly between those who favor the traditional stockholder system and others who advocate what is called the shareholder model. While the arguments are complex, the idea behind the shareholder concept is that people other than well healed investors should also benefit from company successes.

Even if that modification were possible, I doubt Desmond Tutu or the Dalai Lama would believe a remolding of capitalism would be enough to propel our society toward greater happiness. Certainly not joy.

Joy requires people to feel needed and authentically productive. That their purpose in life is to fulfill the needs of others in meaningful and authentic ways.

No revised status quo economic system can accomplish that, no matter how much it is reshaped.

******************

Archbishop Tutu and the Dalai Lama conversed about the role of suffering as a precondition to finding joy. Both have known great suffering along with remarkable successes in guiding millions of people in finding happiness. Even joy.

My understanding of their conversation took me to the word “empathy.” Empathy is much more than sympathy.

Sympathy is feeling sorry for someone else with no innate sense of what they are really going through.

Empathy is an understanding of the anguish or distress of another person because we have experienced something similar ourselves. As fellow human beings with the same physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual needs.

They hurt. We hurt with them, deeply and authentically. We are who they are, but in a place that is now better.

Because we survived our hurt and learned from it.

Barbara, my wife of 57 years, could be amazingly empathetic. A kind of empathy that grew as an extension of her own suffering. At age 14 she was diagnosed with epilepsy and experienced all its manifestations and limitations on a normal childhood. She understood the social agony of being different than others, and isolated because of it.

What astounded me about her condition, later controlled quite well with medications, is that her empathy extended far beyond a deep understanding of others with that disorder.

Barbara, while in college, could feel the distress and confusion of those who were in a dark place with no apparent exit. Fellow students with terminal conditions that would shorten their lives. Friends with deep spiritual convictions that were shunned by others because of those beliefs. Men and women who discovered in themselves a preference for physical intimacy with members of their own gender.  

After college graduation and entrance into the teaching profession, Barbara revealed that sense of empathy with students. Those who were abused at home. Those from poor families with inadequate food, shelter, or protection from the elements. Students who sensed they were different in ways unacceptable to society in general.

During her teaching and in later years, she realized our society often treated girls and women unfairly. So from that realization she worked tirelessly to give members of her own sex the opportunities and recognition they deserved. In schools. In churches. Everywhere women needed support to advance their own efforts to contribute, and thereby gain joy from the giving. 

To say that Barbara gained joy from her deep sense of caring for others, and serving them the best way she knew, seems on the surface to be overreach. Absolute nonsense.

But joy is multidimensional and hard to pin down. The emotional pain associated with empathy is also a source of realizing God’s purpose for our lives. The joy that goes deep into the soul is connected to our relational needs, that we are all made of the same stuff and feel the same way. With variations that enrich our collective personality and create cultural happiness.

The joy of living.

©2022 Stu Ervay – All Rights Reserved

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