Joy Is An Inside Job

“Does it bring you joy?” That is the question asked by author Marie Kondo. Kondo is a “professional organizer” who uses this question to simplify and declutter her clients’ lives. If the answer to the question is “Yes,” then a particular object, artifact, or closet-occupying sport jacket should be kept, she says. If the answer is “No,” then it’s to the dumpster or Goodwill with said item.

As a minimalist, I find Kondo’s approach simple and effective for things, possessions, even hobbies, and uses of my time. I like tidy and clean, simplicity and order, “having a place for everything and everything in its place.” But Kondo’s question is not universal. That is, it doesn’t always apply to relationships or the world in which we find ourselves.

To be sure, it does apply to some people in our lives. There are individuals who are nothing but great psyche-sucking, joy-killing, happiness-disturbing, fault-finding malcontents. Such folks may not need a place in our lives, even some who share our genetics, and keeping emotional boundaries with them can save our souls. In other cases, however, “Does it bring you joy?” cannot be applied.

Does a colicky baby bring joy to her mother? Does a smart-ass teenager bring joy to his father? Does a chronically ill husband, requiring years of care from his wife and children, bring joy to the family? Relationships are hard, messy, and unpredictable. If we were to quit every time the joy-meter runs into the red, we would jettison from our lives the people most important to us.

And turn your attention to the world? Does the state of American politics bring you joy? Do the escalating deaths from Covid-19 bring you joy? Do conspiracy theories, deranged and insurrectional rhetoric, and the dangers of polarization bring you joy? No, not if you care about your children or the future.

Yet, our lives are in media res, that is, we exist within this current story – as both contributors to and sufferers of our time and place. We cannot cast it to the curb because it makes us unhappy like some old scratchy sweater. That’s not joy. That’s social suicide. We are left to find joy somewhere else – from within – because outer circumstances simply cannot deliver the joyful goods. 

All the spiritual masters understood this. The Buddha said, “When the mind is clear, joy follows.” Socrates said, “Know thyself,” for it is the inner person who experiences joy. “Live from your soul,” Rumi taught, “for that is the river of joy.” Anne Lamott always quips that, “Joy is an inside job.” And on this third weekend of Advent remember the words of Jesus: “My joy will be within you, a joy made full!” 

So, let Marie Kondo help you with your clutter. Life will be better for it. Just remember that your personal joy is not determined by what is in your closet or garage. Joy is determined by what is in your heart.