For Charlie: not hopelessness but joy

A few weeks ago I was invited to talk with a group of students on my campus, the kind of students who, I used to think, existed only in nostalgic novels and professorial daydreams: earnest young people searching for meaning, not just job preparation, in college. Evangelists for an expanded and intensified core curriculum at the university.  Seeking vocational guidance and wisdom, they found one another and created this organization that invites professors in for conversation about who we are, what we do, and why we chose our academic discipline. (Readers outside of academia, you may imagine this to be our everyday life at the university but you would be wrong. It’s all too rare.)

Sad to report, then, that far from inspiring them to study English, I’m afraid I’ve bummed them all out.

I’ve been most concerned about Charlie, who was visibly troubled at the end of the session and in need of some kind of reassurance.

Not having been to such a session before, I feared boring these thirsty seekers with a straightforward career narrative of first I did this, then I did that. All of my pursuits have been driven by a longing for presence, as I’ve been exploring with all of you in this oddly intimate-yet-public setting, and I knew these students to be spiritually-minded folk, and thus I decided to engage them in my current research on the subject.

Greece pictures from Maria 041

On, that is, the ironies of travelers who long for personal liberty seeking out Greece, a country associated with freedom but longing for liberty itself.  On my ethical concerns about representing Greece as a vale of soul-making—using another country to make your soul, and how travelers have wanted Greece to stay ruined, imperfect, fragmented, because it’s so much more soulful—and artistically inspiring—that way.

On the painful pleasures of longing, how we actually want to long, rather than to have all things finished, polished, perfected. Think of Martha Graham, I waxed on dramatically, who was never content, even when creating one groundbreaking modern dance work after the next, but always felt “divine dissatisfaction,” the ”blessed unrest” that kept her going and made her feel alive.

Martha Graham in "Letter to the World," her portrait of Emily Dickinson. Classic photograph by Barbara Morgan, 1940.
Martha Graham in “Letter to the World,” her portrait of Emily Dickinson. Classic photograph by Barbara Morgan, 1940.

The problem, though, as you can probably guess (or perhaps not, if you don’t know me personally), is that it’s one thing to present still-evolving thoughts in a worked-over 500 word format, interspersed with pretty pictures, and yet another to passionately fling these half-baked notions to students who were hoping for some inspiration, perhaps a little concrete guidance. They were all polite but I could tell something was wrong.

At the end, Charlie, who already knows me, who had taken my seminar in art and social change a couple years back and is one of the sweetest and most thoughtful students I’ve ever known, bravely ventured the final statement. “But,” he began, choosing his words carefully, “it sounds . . . hopeless.”

That day I didn’t have language within the right framework for my audience. Now I do.


And it’s courtesy of the blog world, which sometimes, by happy chance, comes to our rescue and delivers on its promise to be a conduit for conversation, to create convergences.

This particular convergence was facilitated nicely by WordPress editors, who chose for “Freshly Pressed” honors the February 15, 2013 post on “Zadie Smith, C. S. Lewis, and Joy” from Brett McCracken’s blog entitled The Search: .

Charlie, I should have quoted C. S. Lewis to you. He’s a voice you’re familiar with and would gravitate toward. This longing, you see, that I was trying to describe is not a matter of hopelessness but of what Lewis would call joy.

In Surprised by Joy he defines the term as an “unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction.”  Like happiness or pleasure “anyone who has experienced [joy] will want it again.” But–in sharp distinction from those two (happiness or pleasure)–joy “might almost equally well be called a particular kind of unhappiness or grief.” Yet we’ll seek it out, even though it’s not under our control but comes unbidden. We actually want “the stab, the pang, the inconsolable longing” more than we do pleasure, which is easily tired of.

True, Lewis will write at the end of Surprised by Joy that he no longer gives this intense bittersweetness primary importance following his conversion, but this subjective, still-seeking reader continues to feel the longing.


Autosave-File vom d-lab2/3 der AgfaPhoto GmbH

P.S. To keep the blog loop and this conversation on joy going, I recommend you read Zadie Smith’s New York Review of Books essay “Joy,” which is quoted in The Search: 

I think you’ll like it.

4 thoughts on “For Charlie: not hopelessness but joy

  1. May you continue to find joy in fulfilling your rational telos in pursuit of eudaimonia! (And keep writing – the blog is a delight).

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