Think for a minute of a few people you consider spiritually resilient. They might be famous - like Martin Luther King, Jr. or Mother Theresa - or they may be a member of your own family.
Why do their faces come to mind? How would you describe them, and what qualities do they hold in common? What is it about these people that we instinctively admire and respect?
Regardless of who you chose, I would be willing to bet your examples possess a calm strength, a sense of hope and generosity, and a willingness to engage in but not get bogged down by their own and others’ suffering. I would suggest they are likely to exhibit a higher than average tendency toward:
These spiritual emotions all have a tendency to call us - emotionally, not just intellectually -
beyond our own small egos to connect with other people, creation, and God. In doing so, they allow us to experience our deepest and best selves, the part of us that is most capable of seeing reality and acting as God calls us to act.
POSITIVE EFFECTS OF SPIRITUAL EMOTIONS
Members of the positive psychology movement of the last few decades have conducted extensive research on these and other positive emotions. They have documented that when we are experiencing these emotions we are more likely to:
Seriously, if someone announced they’d just developed a pill that would deliver these benefits, I’d be the first to sign up. Our seven spiritual practices are even better. They don’t cost money, don’t have negative side effects, and can be way more fun than swallowing a pill will ever be.
Spiritual resilience is not the same as a chipper outlook. Spiritually resilient people do not live in denial about complexity or pain, and they do not put undue emphasis on their own happiness. But while spiritual resilience is more than feeling good, it is characterized by emotions that feel good. Our opening lesson focused on the practice and emotion of gratitude, Today we’ll take a look at hope and joy.
Hope is not the same as optimism. Optimism is the expectation, realistic or not, that things are going to turn out well. Hope can exist even in situations where there is no possibility of a positive physical outcome. Hope increases our capacity to be kind and courageous; it can be a source of healing even when there is no possibility of a cure. Trust in a God who loves us, and a belief in a positive afterlife, gives us a sense of perspective that helps us see beyond the immediate.
Hopeful people keep trying even when all seems lost. They refuse to accept ultimate defeat even, sometimes, in the face of certain death. Hope bestows courage and the capacity for action; Gerald May, M.D. puts it, “Hope frees the will.”
1 Cor. 13:13 says, “Faith, hope and love will last forever, but the greatest of these is love.” As a kid I appreciated the importance and challenge of being faithful and loving, but I could never figure out why hope made the list. Why make such a big deal about hope? What’s so hard about being hopeful? Now I get it. In the darkness of today’s world hope is harder to come by and all the more precious.
Joy is like happiness only different. Joy is deeper than happiness, and like hope can exist in spite of rather than because of our current circumstances. People who are terminally ill can be joyful even though they are not happy about facing the end of their days on earth. David Steindl-Rast, OSB, says that joy is “being in sync with life, in tune with the Mystery.” Little children and puppies seem wired for joy, delighted at a leaf dancing across their path even in the most dismal surroundings.
Harvard’s George Vaillant, a pioneer in studying spiritual emotions, reminds us that happiness arrives more surely as a byproduct than an object of our actions. When we try to make ourselves happy we often just make ourselves tired. When we remember to be grateful, to forgive, to pay attention to the hearts of the quirky people around us, we can be, as C.S. Lewis titled his autobiography, Surprised By Joy.
Joy seems to coincide with an ability to be present to the moment as it truly is. Br. David said his life during World War II was filled with great joy because he and his comrades knew death could come at any time and they therefore lived in the moment. He says,
Joy is something other than pleasure. Joy is the feeling of being in sync with life,
in tune with the Mystery. One may have all the pleasure in the world and yet feel
out of tune with life; but one may, by contrast, be screaming in anguish and yet hear
deep inside the music of joy, a counterpoint bass line as it were.
Don’t let all this talk about spiritual emotions leave you feeling inadequate. I'm inspired by Brother David’s example, but I am confident his joyfulness is beyond me. We’re not responsible for being Br. David for the simple reason we are not Br. David. Instead we are called to be moving, however slowly, toward joy. And that is enough.
Note: Engaging suffering requires skill as well as courage and determination. A series on grief will be coming soon.
Quote taken from I Am Through You So I, David Steindl-Rast, OSB, p. 107