The Germans have a linguistic practice that is quite unusual. When they lack a word for something, they cram two or more words together into one, making a new word to describe that thing. For instance, in some primordial time, Germanic peoples presumably did not have a word for “pet,” as in a domesticated animal. Thus, they took “Haus” (house) and “Tier” (animal) and rammed them together, creating today’s word for pet: Haustier (house animal). Strange as that may seem, it gets more interesting when it comes to words that the Germans have that the rest of us do not.
“Schadenfreude” is a concept for which we lack a single word in English. It comes from the words “Schaden” (to damage) and “Freude” (joy), and in toto it means pleasure derived from another’s pain. Certainly the German language is enriched by the expression of such a concept, dark though it may be. Once a thing has a name it can be discussed, judged, analyzed, sought out, or guarded against. This can profoundly affect a person’s thinking, but on a societal level, it can shape culture. Take Russia, for instance. Though the USSR came crashing down some decades ago, the general trend towards classical liberalism lasted only a short while before a dramatic reversal. Russia, in many senses, is even today a place of oppression, where individual rights are regularly quashed by the government and organized crime. What has this to do with linguistics, you may ask?
In Russian, all titles were thrown out the window, casualties of the linguistic reforms (The Soviet Language Revolution).
Bizarre as this may seem, it is true. During the early days of Communism in Russia, the terms for “prince,” “sire,” and “most esteemed” were thrown out the window. These ones might seem obvious, but even common terms of respect like “mister” and “missus” were banned and replaced with “comrade.” When everyone is simply “comrade,” life becomes cheap. Everyone is a number, not an individual. Certainly a change in language was not the only reason that the Soviet government (and even the people themselves) considered the population cannon fodder, but there is an undeniable relationship, whether cause or effect.
All of this is to say that there is a concept that I sense and hunger for, but there is no word for it in English of which I am aware. It is not quite the opposite of “Schadenfreude,” but it opposes it. If we were speaking German, I suppose I would call it “Festfreude,” made up of “Fest” (fixed, solid) and “Freude” (joy), but in English our conventions are more complicated. Traditionally one would have to look back to Greek and Latin roots for prefixes and suffixes to affix to the existing word, or more likely anglicize a Greek or Latinate term altogether. For simplicity’s sake, I will leave the naming to the philologists, and for now I will settle for using a two-word term for this concept that I must discuss. I speak of resilient joy, something we need to name and examine for the good of our culture and for the good of ourselves.
“Resilient Joy” seems an oxymoron upon a cursory examination. After all, resilient means “capable of withstanding shock without permanent damage or rupture; tending to adjust easily from or adjust easily to misfortune or change” and joy means “the emotion evoked by well-being, success, or good fortune; a state of happiness or felicity.” One is by definition permanent, the other transient. Joy depends on its source, sources we are told are such things as may come and go. Success will never be uninterrupted, well-being can plummet from sickness, marital distress, or simple annoyance, and good fortune is a fickle thing.
This is all well and good, but it is incomplete on the only two counts by which any person can ever know anything: both experience and authority tell us of joy that remains in the face of hardship, depends not on circumstances, and can take a blow without diminishing. Such a thing would seem to be definitionally absurd, and yet its existence is demonstrated many times. I know a handful of individuals whose felicity is unshakeable. These people radiate joy in the midst of hardship, disappointment, and loss. I envy them, and, perhaps like you, I wish to learn from their peculiarity. Having a word for what they possess is the first step.
My conviction of the existence of this concept is not, however, based solely from what I observe. Authority tells us the same. The Bible, which has guided billions of people for thousands of years, repeatedly commands its readers to “be joyful always,” “rejoice in all your undertakings,” and Paul writes that “we exult in our tribulations.” Whether this is a concept unknown to other religions I will not venture to guess, but it is an unfamiliar, or at least unnatural, idea to mankind in general.
So how can joy, which is by definition based in success or good fortune, be commanded? How can it be observed in the face of great loss and failure? As our friend Sherlock tells us, if we remove the impossible from the equation, that which remains, no matter how improbable, is the truth. There is such a joy, a resilient joy, and what remains is to find it and to discover its inner-workings. All truth begins with fact, and all fact can be traced back to either experience or authority, with reason building on top of such foundations. Let us take each in its turn.
I have a modest library made up of three large bookshelves, and I feel the necessity to keep them wherever we live. This is more than the simple enjoyment of reading; books are for me memories, aspirations, inspiration, and accomplishment. When I lend out a book to someone and they lapse into what my friends and I term “radio silence,” neither calling nor returning calls, it distresses me a great deal. Certainly, the monetary value of any given book I lend out tends to be small, so it is not a matter of money. The idea of losing a book, at least momentarily, threatens my joy.
A contrasting example leaps to mind that plays a critical role in our examination. I had a dorm-mate in college named Donald who was full of life, always laughing, always grinning, and generally always enjoying himself. He was also a big reader. One day I wandered into his room to chat and I saw a brand new paperback in the trash can. I picked it up in disbelief.
“Your book fell in the trash.”
“I put it there,” he nonchalantly replied.
“Was it bad?”
“No, I liked it.”
I looked at him like he was a crazy person.
“Then why did you throw it away?!”
Now it was his turn to look at me like I was the insane one.
“I finished it.”
Unable to argue with someone who was so clearly a sociopath, or at least a lunatic, I dusted the book off and took it back to my room. It’s still sitting on my bookshelf today, years later.
What is illuminating to me about this banal occurrence is this: Donald had joy and I had joy. We both enjoyed books. Yet his joy was uninvolved with book-collecting and mine was. This is to say that each of us may derive joy from disparate arenas. The same exact scenario can happen to two people – say of a car breaking down and needing to be sold – and one man will be devastated, the other unaffected. It stands to reason that both of them may love cars, but one finds joy in it, the other does not. A house wherein a septic pipe leaks will be enormously off-putting to most people, but a friend of mine who lacks the ability to smell would be entirely unaffected. He still has joy; he simply derives it from someplace else. Man, it is said, is an economic animal. So he is, but there are many economies.
This is what logic tells us after starting from the place of our own observations: joy comes from something and that something varies from person to person. It stands to reason, then, that there are more permanent (that is not yet to say resilient) and more temporary sources from which a person can take their joy. The commands “rejoice” and “take joy” start to make more sense now, but a new question arises: Can a person change the source of their joy? Are we the curators of our own tastes or their slaves? If we cannot shift our source of joy, then the order is absurd. You might as well command your wife to levitate or your neighbor to grow three feet taller.
Yet we have reason to believe that we are, at least in some respects, the curators of our own tastes. Many are resistant to this idea, and perhaps reasonably so. After all, it is a repugnant idea to think that our individuality is arbitrary, but is not personality more than tastes? There are many immutable characteristics within each individual, but one such characteristic is his ability to adapt and change.
Have you ever called something you enjoy an “acquired taste”? How could it be a taste at all unless you could acquire it? The Japanese delicacy uni is not something that most people enjoy the first time around. With repeated exposure, subtleties are discovered, and it is possible to “acquire” the taste. Many other examples abound: coffee, crossword puzzles, smoking, cold swims, and exercise in general. If we can learn to enjoy things, it is tautological that we can learn to find our joy in them.
Returning to my joy in books, it is apparent that there is inherent weakness in it. Books, under good conditions, only last a hundred and twenty years or so. Certainly they may last longer if no one ever reads them, if they are kept in a perfectly humidified environment, away from light and pests. Practically speaking, however, even a good hardback will wear away after repeated readings and use. Pages can get torn, tea can spill, mold can grow, etc. My joy is thus constantly threatened, for many of my books are old already and I have had to get rid of some. New acquisitions bring joy, of course, but the threat of loss remains. A fire might take them all away in an instant.
So it seems reasonable then, to say that I ought source my joy from deeper waters. It is tempting to suppose I ought to find my joy in other people, but the dangers there are worse than the dangers associated with my books. Sure, a person may live about as long as I do (but they may not), yet people invariably disappoint one another. The most charitable and kindhearted friend will have bad days and a poor attitude on occasion. If my joy, once so secure, is found in such a person, their weakness will badly shake me, perhaps permanently. The more your hope is in something, the harder it is when that something is struck, just as when fighting someone, you kick the leg bearing the most weight in order to break it.
Where, then, do we turn? Can abstract concepts such as freedom, knowledge, or music ever satisfy? Freedom can be taken away, knowledge proved incorrect or inaccessible, and some days the music will refuse to come. What possible defense can we have when the source of our joy is assaulted? Is there any source unassailable? It seems unlikely.
Joy in the world itself must be discarded, firstly because natural disaster and human misuse may damage it, secondly because though it will outlive you, does not death rob us of all possible, earthly pleasures?
Of course, if you are a materialist you will believe that death is the end anyway, but for the majority of the world’s population throughout history, we have the deep understanding that something else happens next. Whatever it is, it is certain that we cannot take possessions or people with us when we go.
All that remains, then, if resilient joy is real (it is. I have seen it, and so have you.) is that which will not change, be lost, die before us, nor abandon us in our death. By definition, only one thing fulfills such criteria, and that is God Himself.
This lines up with my experience (and, if I am not mistaken, volumes of research) precisely. A man I knew nearly lost his wife during childbirth, and the trauma gave his son severe cerebral palsy. He was by no means jubilant in the pain or the loss, but he never lacked the joy that defines him. He is, as you now may well guess, a deeply religious person. His joy never changes, never abandons him, because he has placed his joy in something intransigent. I know a woman whose husband transgressed their vows and treated her very badly, despite their four children together. Throughout the process of a horrible divorce, she had joy, not in the breaking up of her family but in God.
Religious people are reported to be, on the whole, happier than nonreligious people. Perhaps it is because they have placed their joy in God. They may like books or cars or money, but possessing these things is not how they define “well-being, success, or good fortune.” Many religious people likely have this “Festfreude,” this resilient joy, because of where they search for it.
I think I’ve had it at times. I want to have it always. Guiding my passions and curating my tastes, defining success and well-being in eternal, unchanging, and divine terms found only in the personhood of God, then, is my route. I know of no other way.