Joy Thieves

Joy Thieves

by Phoebe Farag Mikhail, author of Putting Joy Into Practice: Seven Ways to Lift Your Spirit from the Early Church

The world didn’t give you your joy, and the world can’t take it away. You can let people come into your life and destroy it, but I refused to let anyone take my joy.

—Anthony Ray Hinton, a few years after being released from thirty years in prison for a wrongful conviction

Sit in a high place and keep watch if you can, and you will see the thieves come, and you will discover how they come, when and from where, how many and what kind they are as they steal your clusters of grapes.

—St. John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent

One idyllic summer evening, I sat in the backyard with my two older children. They were then ages five and two. A friend had bequeathed us a small, used swing set, and another friend had assembled it for the kids. As I sipped my coffee and watched them play, grateful for my children and generous friends, my son shouted, “Look! The tomatoes are here!”

Sure enough, some small red tomatoes were ripening in our garden. When we first moved to our home, one of our neighbors told me that our soil was especially rich, perfectly suited for a vegetable garden. I was six months pregnant with my second baby at the time, so when he said this, I nodded obligingly, vaguely referring to some future time when I might be physically and mentally capable of planting a garden and caring for it. When, after two years, he noticed that I still had not planted anything, he took matters into his own hands and planted a little vegetable garden for us himself.

My daughter slid down the slide to come see the excitement. I instructed the kids to start picking the red tomatoes while I went inside to get a basket. When I returned, my daughter happily deposited some smooth, green ones she had picked with her chubby toddler hands. I had forgotten that, at two years old, she didn’t know the difference between red and green.

We laughed and put the green tomatoes on the kitchen windowsill to ripen in the sun. We later discovered that my daughter was unwittingly right about picking them green. Little critter thieves were stealing our red ones before we could get to them and enjoy them. We saw their traces in half-eaten tomatoes on the ground. My urban inexperience meant that I had no idea how to keep them out.

Joy thieves can be just like the little animals that steal tomatoes from the garden. On the outside, they can be small, cute, and furry, even comforting, and yet somehow they can still manage to steal our joy. The early church fathers called them “the passions.” In this context, passions are not to be completely confused with our modern use of the word to describe a positive, driven desire to do something good or meaningful. Nor are they to be confused with the “passion of Christ,” which is related to the Latin word for suffering and endurance. Rather, these passions are extreme versions of human behavior that lead to sin.

These passions, or logismoi, also called “thoughts” and sometimes called “demons,”10 include gluttony, lust, greed, anger, envy, sloth, and vainglory. Each begins with a human thought or need that is not, in and of itself, sinful. Gluttony, for example, has its roots in hunger; lust, from normal sexual desire; anger, from a sense of injustice, and so on. It is the imbalance of these thoughts that lead to the passions, and when the passions are subdued and balance is maintained, we experience apatheia, which is “an abiding sense of peace and joy that comes from the full harmony of the passions.”11 Apatheia looks and sounds much like “apathy,” but apathy is a total indifference to others, whereas apatheia is closer to equanimity, to being in balance and less easily moved by the passions.

Thus, the imbalance of passions can be a joy thief. Many passions, taken to an extreme, eventually manifest themselves as addictions, although they start, like fuzzy bunny rabbits, as comforts and pleasures. Recent research, for example, claims that people who habitually use curse words are happier, healthier, smarter, and perhaps more honest than those who don’t.12 These studies lead some to think that habitual cursing is a good thing. Is it a comfort of some sort— something that eases tension temporarily? Perhaps for some it is. But habitual cursing sounds to me like uncontrolled anger—no better than, say, the habitual yelling that I am prone to, which also stems from anger. Anger is a joy thief that masquerades itself through the temporary relief that might come from cursing or yelling.

The same could be said for gluttony. Many people, including me, have succumbed to “comfort eating” at one time or another, eating out of a sense of boredom or to quell other pains or anxieties. Taken to an extreme, this can result in many health problems or binge eating disorders, and so gluttony is a joy thief that disguises itself through the temporary comfort of a bowl (or two) of fettuccine alfredo.

Thus, an overindulgence in “creature comforts” can inhibit us from experiencing and practicing joy, because these pleasures are just short-term stand-ins for the joy that can only be truly found in God’s love, God’s comfort, and God’s power. “I sometimes wonder whether all pleasures are not substitutes for Joy,” C. S. Lewis writes.  Just like the furry bunnies stealing our tomatoes, an imbalance of the passions—the overindulgence in earthly pleasures—can steal our joy. 

Read more of Putting Joy Into Practice by Phoebe Farag Mikhail

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