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A Startling Joy

Have you ever been knocked off your feet by joy?  I don’t mean the moment when you spot your long-absent sweet heart rushing toward you in the airport with arms open to give you a bear hug, or the kind when your boss emails you that you’ve got the promotion you’ve spent years longing for.  This kind of joy that knocks you off of your feet is never anticipated, totally unexpected -a sudden surge of happiness that jolts you from the top of your head to your curled up toes.

For that moment, you know that the universe is existentially good, and that, for you, all manner of things are inexplicably well.

These days we are accosted by cascades of bad news.  Bad news is stronger “click bait,” more emotionally galvanizing, than good news; it is thrown at us to get our attention.  In the journalistic bromide, “if it bleeds, it leads.”  Even news channels whose basic political bent is as progressive as I am do this: “there is much bad news to report,” Robert Hubbell explains, “but it is overwhelmed by orders of magnitude by good news that goes unreported. Good news is not reported precisely because it is ubiquitous. It is all around us.”

Plenty of philosophers consider “the good” to be the ground of reality.  Plato and Socrates assumed that a moral good underlay all social arrangements, as did Adam Smith and America’s founders.   Like them (“We hold these truths to be self-evident”) Immanuel Kant insists that reason dictates a moral imperative. Christianity assumes that the universe rests in God’s hands, and that God is good.  Human error can always be corrected by attention to divine justice.  When the Reverend Martin Luther King said that “the arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” he meant (as did the Unitarian Minister Theodore Parker whom he was paraphrasing) that that the presence of God behind all things calls us to seek justice.

Here is how Parker put it in his 1853 sermon: “We cannot understand the moral Universe. The arc is a long one, and our eyes reach but a little way; we cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; but we can divine it by conscience, and we surely know that it bends toward justice.”  To this 19th century Unitarian, the universe contains moral directives which we must first discern and then enact.   Universalism, a denomination which merged with Unitarianism in 1961, goes even further in its assertion that the universe is intrinsically good and that every one of us is endowed from birth with goodness, dignity, and worth.

One of Hubbell’s respondents worries that when we are bombarded by bad news we experience “moral injury”:

          “It is a moral injury to see wrong being done, legally, in an ongoing way. And to not see enough being done to stop it. Moral injuries unbalance our sense that the world we live in is basically good. They bruise our trust that we will continue as a ‘good enough; nation.”

          “The the reader has put her finger on the answer,” responds Hubbell: “We do live in a world that is basically good—a truth that is difficult to see at times. Our perception of reality is skewed to the extent that it is informed by the relative proportion of good news versus bad reported by the news media.”

These days, everything we read and hear suggests an ever-increasing power of a profoundly malignant evil.  So where to these sudden moments of joy, of inexplicable happiness pouring all through our beings like warm butter, come from?

As I am waking up I like to listen to the radio.  A few mornings ago,  I lay there being accosted by news of a  gigantic tornado tearing whole towns apart and burying everyone in the rubble, the world-wide proliferation of the omicron covid variation, cascading Antarctic icebergs raising sea levels by ten feet, school shootings and species depletion – all of that – when my dread and my terror suddenly melted away and the world became inexplicably lovely, inexplicably good.  It was one of those warm-butter-all-through-me breakthroughs when all manner of things were well in every direction and I found myself reveling in a world of total joy, of total goodness.

Where did that come from?  If it was a breakthrough, where did it breakthrough from? Do we live in more than one world, all at the same time?  Is there a space we within us, buried beneath all the bad stuff, that we inhabit unwittingly?  Is it as real as the real world?  Is it the real world?

Wishing you all happiness and joy, as often and as jolting as possible.

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