The Alchemy of Joy

I remember the first time I heard Handel’s Messiah. Seeing everyone stand when the choir began singing the Hallelujah Chorus was wonderful, but it was the closing – Worthy Is the Lamb and ¬†Amen Chorus that brought goosebumps. That is when I wanted to stand. When our Select Choir sang it during my junior year of college, I did not want the concert to end. I wanted to keep singing that song over and over.

Isn’t it a wonderful thing to get goosebumps? I attended a couple of concerts a week ago, and had goosebumps in abundance. I was experiencing surprise in the form of wonder.

Surprise is one of the six core emotions of humans. All six come to us when external stimuli create a physiological response in our bodies. The six core emotions are happiness, sadness, anger, fear, surprise, and disgust. All six create different types of physical responses – goosebumps, a dry mouth, a rapid heartbeat, sweaty palms, hair standing up on the back of your neck.

Feelings are different from emotions. Feelings are our own personal reactions to the emotions that come to us. Our feelings are our personal response to emotions, and they are based on our personal experience. Brené Brown has identified 150 different feelings that are derived from our emotions.

One of the core emotions is happiness. I remember Christmas when I was in the fifth grade. I was hoping beyond hope for a new bicycle. I came downstairs and there it was, a JC Higgins 26″ Tank Survivor with saddlebags and streamers from the handlebars and I was happy, very happy.

Happiness comes when you expect it. You get a raise and you’re happy. You go on vacation and you’re happy. You get a new bike, and you’re happy. Happiness comes when you expect it. Joy, on the other hand, has a mind of its own.

Just a month before I got that bicycle, my maternal grandfather died. He was an Eastern Kentucky farmer and though he was gruff and spoke a total of 10 words a year, whether he needed them or not, I adored him. And I was devastated. At his funeral I was filled with sadness and fear. It was the first time I ever encountered the death of someone I knew and loved.

At the funeral I leaned hard against my father, and he gave me a half pack of peppermint Lifesavers. We went back to the house and my mother and aunts got talking about their dad and telling funny stories and they laughed hard, before dissolving in tears again. And then they told more stories and laughed again, and I was filled with wonder that these women I knew to be so stoic and guarded were laughing and crying in turn, and I was grateful to see them like that – expressing their true emotions with abandon.

I don’t know that I would have known what to call the feeling I had then, but I know now what it was. The feeling was joy. That is when I discovered that fear, followed by wonder, followed by gratitude, creates joy. Fear, wonder, and gratitude are the alchemy of joy.

It was that way for the shepherds who were there at the birth of Jesus. When the angel came to them, they were utterly terrified. But then when they saw what happened at the manger, they were filled with wonder. In gratitude they told everyone what the angels had asked them to speak – that the Lord had come. And Luke tells us, they were filled with joy.

The same thing happened two years later with the Magi. They were not kings, but wise leaders from Persia, probably Zoroastrians, another monotheistic religion that believed in a moral duality of right and wrong.

They followed a star and when it led them to the toddler Jesus, they were filled with wonder. They brought frankincense, gold, and myrrh, to show gratitude. But they also felt fear. When they were on their way to where Jesus was, they stopped in Jerusalem. Herod asked where they were going, and before they realized it had been a bad idea, they told him. He said, “Make sure to come back through and let me know where you find him?” I believe it sent shivers down their spines. When they were ready to leave where Jesus was, they had a nightmare telling them to return another way, and they did. Again, it was fear, replaced by wonder, coupled with gratitude, that brought joy.

Fear, replaced by wonder, coupled with gratitude, that is what I experienced on the day of my grandfather’s funeral. That is what I have experienced so many times since. It is the alchemy that produces joy.

May this Christmas season bring you great joy.