The Strength of Joy

Third appointment with Comments by Luigino Bruni on ‘Economy and Advent’

Comments – This is also a Time to Understand ‘Poverty’ in its Many Forms

di Luigino Bruni

Published in Avvenire on 16/12/2012

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Returning to Europe after traveling in Africa, the Philippines, or Brazil, I am struck by how little singing I hear in our own cities, communities, or families.  But, above all, in contrast with what is happening to those younger civilizations, among us, it is the adults and the elderly who do not sing much; and when grown-ups don’t sing it is very serious, because a happy, joyful adult, is a message of hope and life that is launched to all, especially to the young who need, today, to be helped to want to grow up even by the exercise of joyfulness by the adults around them.  Here then, is the importance, civilly as well, of the phrase “Be joyful always.”

But how can one be joyful in a time of crisis?  To capture it we need first to remember that joyfulness is not an archaic word, but a very current one: it is a word of the future, if it will be better.  It is not only merriment, much less is it pleasure, it is not the merry (cheerful, tipsy), an associated adjective, as in the English language, indissoluble as Christmas (Birth of Christ).  Letitia has a lot to do with relationships: we cannot be joyful by ourselves, we need someone to make us joyful, we need to make others joyful, we need to make each other joyful.  Also because of its nature of gratuity and reciprocity, joyfulness is disappearing from our vocabulary, because, joyfulness is not a word for a consumeristic society, for games and finances. One is not joyful when entering a mall, not even when one compulsively scratches a lottery ticket, or when one makes big profits by incomes and by speculations.  For these experiences or emotions the word joyful doesn’t fit, it sounds off, because it is not an emotion.

To feel true joyfulness we need to receive the news of a new job, of someone getting well again, of a positive diagnosis, we need to return home after a long journey knowing that someone is waiting for us and is preparing something to celebrate with.  There’s need for a graduation day after many sacrifices, of reconciling and hugging again after years of conflict, to wait for and be awed by a baby being born.  Who has no idea of such experiences doesn’t need the word joy, he can be fine with some fun, entertainment, pleasure, happiness.  Joy is then a fundamental word for a time of crisis, of any kind, because it blossoms from good relationships, and it renders them fertile, generative.  For this reason as well, joy has the same latin root (laetus) as (letame) manure, it is that which fertilizes and makes plants fruitful, and what brings up flowers. Joy is like manure in the fields: to make good and abundant fruit it isn’t enough to plow the field (work and talent), there’s also need for that joie de vivre (laetus), both individual and collective, which brings about good results in work.  Joy makes one fertile because, in order to generate companies, jobs, projects, families, and life, there is the essential need to by joyful. The businessperson generates work and riches as long as he remains a little ‘mischievous shop boy’, but innovation stops when he loses this joy.

Creativity, from economy to the arts, is almost always a fruit of adults who, with great effort, have kept the child alive in them.  Joyfulness is a virtue, which, as any other virtue, needs to be cultivated and guarded all lifelong.  The “perfect joy” then, is born of loved wounds, in ourselves and in others, so that they become blessings, for oneself, or more commonly, for the others.  Finally, in order to know joy one must be poor.  It is to the poor that is given the ‘good news’ because chosen poverty, that is therefore, neither indigence nor misery, is the precondition that permits one to be joyful.  Today, in Italy and in the West there are many, too many indigent people in utter misery, excluded from economic and social life (because of being unemployed for example), but there are always less poor, in the highest truest sense (and too forgotten) of the term.  It is the poverty which the Iranian Majid Rahnema speaks about, which in his beautiful book (which should be given as a gift this Christmas season) shows us a ‘misery’ that ‘makes poverty flee’, that is, a bad poverty (the one not chosen and borne with) which makes it very difficult, if not impossible, to live the virtue-beatitude of chosen poverty.  When one lives a life of abject misery, when one has no means to live with or help one’s family live in a dignified manner, one cannot freely choose a poor life.  The good chosen poverty, the only one which brings joy, is called sobriety, gratuity, sharing, and is born of the spiritual and ethical awareness  that the goods we have become wellbeing only and if they are shared, and not treated as substitutes for a relationship with others.

Families know this very well.  Those who do not know this chosen and convivial poverty, is not joyful because he is not able to distinguish joyousness from pleasure, celebrations from entertainment, poverty from misery.  Christmas is a true feast only for these poor.  Let us relearn then to wish one another a ‘Joyful (merry) Christmas.’

All of Luigino Bruni's comments on Avvenire can be found under Avvenire Editorial.

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