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The Joy of Life

Is it possible to witness the gambols of a lamb around its mother without feeling that it experiences a sense of joy in a remarkable degree? Its whole life appears to pulsate happiness. Under normal conditions it has joy unconsciously. It would appear that all animated beings are instinctively intended to be happy. Every vegetable life, says Ruskin, enjoys its vital energy; and we remember Wordsworth teaches us the same truth when he testifies that the butterfly "enjoys the very air it breathes." By a process of analogy we are led up to the thought that the highest form of life is intended to experience joy of a kind greater in degree than it is possible for the lower forms to attain; nay, that it can only culminate in the life beyond, which we call eternal.

How can happiness be got? Unlike many things we seek, joy does not want seeking: it comes spontaneously, and is always associated with simplicity of life, and an appreciation of everything that is beautiful in Nature or Art. Today we rind in all sections of society, associations, clubs, and kindred organizations intended for our mutual advantage, but none of these will afford the joy of life of themselves. The greatest satisfaction arises from the consciousness of daily duties nobly done. When we can take the common things of life and walk among them, we begin to feel that every calling may be made a Divine vocation. The simple life will then be a source of joy. And here we may repeat that the joy manifested by all animal life is of the simplest kind. The complexity of life does not humble the lower creation, whose pursuits are characterized by the most charming abandon. Even the rotifer that wheels in giddy whirl in his tiny ocean, the

Behemoth of the small abyss
With ribs of glass-like steel.

is apparently full of joy.

The delight of life is more enduring than that which can be derived from amusements or from material pleasures. But to understand this we must know the meaning of life. Though four hundred years have elapsed since Sir Thomas More gave us his-Utopia, we are a long way from thinking it "unjust for a man to seek pleasure by snatching another man’s pleasures." If we understood religion rightly, we should endeavor to give joy to others who would be sharers of our joy. How can I be of service to those with whom I have business or other engagements? will be uppermost in our thoughts, and there will be an endeavor to carry out this idea in daily life. And, indeed we shall not appreciate our pleasures if we disregard the interests of others. The vexed question as to "the liveableness of life" will not humble us: we shall demonstrate it day by day. We shall cultivate "a bush of flowering Purity" in our garden, from which there will emanate sweetness, and all the virtues that help us to live.

Perhaps we ought to mention another source of happiness—the bestowal of some of the advantages we possess for the benefit of others. There is hardly a sentient being who is not at times conscious that by rendering to someone a moiety of what he himself enjoys—it may partake various forms—a kind word, a helpful hand, he experiences a sense of joy which is the peculiar characteristic of giving. Hence, the truth of the lines:

Would'st thou lead a happy life?
To others happiness impart;
The happiness that we bestow
Returns to dwell within the heart.

In these days of economy we are told not to waste anything that can possibly be used in any way. But there is one kind of waste we are apt to overlook—the waste of happiness. The true joy of life has often been cast aside—the joy arising from pleasures which are only on the surface has been sought after, while the joy arising from a sense of union with the Divine, the joy that springs from the consciousness that our life is being woven according to God’s pattern, has been regarded of secondary importance, or altogether discarded.

The best work is always done with a song in the heart. Even adverse physical conditions do not prevent us from carrying out our desires with joy. We are told Saint Paul had a "thorn in the flesh," but we know he was ever rejoicing. And when put into prison he lost none of his buoyancy, or mourned over his lot. Coming to our own times, how much we may learn from that possessor of a frail body, Robert Louis Stevenson. Though daily suffering from weakness, he could say: "With the passing of the years, and the decay of strength, there grows more and more upon me that belief in the kindness of the scheme of things and the goodness of our veiled God."

The present condition of English life is said to be inimical to joy in work. To do one’s work because one must is very different from doing it, not only for the remuneration it brings, but also from the pleasure it affords. Men say they would take a greater interest in their work if they had a direct interest in the profits of labor. There may be some truth in this, but it is not, we think, the whole truth. The root is deeper. Both employer and employed have yet to grasp the principle that man does not live by bread alone. Duty must be supreme on both sides, and with duty there must enter willingness to carry out the duty. To do one’s work because one must, to get through it as speedily as possible, regardless of its being done well, is to make life joyless. No task should be treated with indifference; no work should be done half-heartily. Is it possible to believe that each individual's work may reach this moral standard? Yes, if we will only take a proper view of life, and regard life as something noble and Divine. Every action will then be regarded as sacred, and the secular will have no place. The consecration of work is, indeed, one of the joys of life.

We are joy’s shadow in our earthly dreaming.
Somewhere joy is: no shadow without substance.

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J. G. Wright, F. R. S. L.

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  • Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature

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