Foreboding Joy

Aug 22, 2021

by Reverend Rebecca Bryan

My friend reminded me about the concept of foreboding joy about three weeks ago. The timing was perfect, as I was in the middle of experiencing a severe bout of just that. The Delta variant was on the rise. My previous excitement and mounting joy at the prospect of my beloved congregation returning to worship in person, and online, were under siege.

I was moving deeper into despair and doom with every day as my thoughts went into dire predictions. “We will never worship together again.” “The church is over.” “We won’t survive.” My joy was overcome by negativity. It was not fun. Thank God, I knew it would pass if I used the tools of truth telling, connecting, and spiritual practice. And it is passing as I use those tools.  

And now, look at us here, together in person and online; I could lose this joy too if I allow it to become foreboding.

Brené Brown says joy is the most vulnerable of all emotions because it brings us up against our vulnerability. When we feel joy, we are at risk of being hurt. Something will happen, someone will get sick or die or leave us. Our deepest hopes will not come to fruition. Someone else will be given the promotion. Our trusted friend will betray us. Or our adult children won’t come to dinner, or we drop the platter of freshly baked cookies, or our golf score increases exponentially with our age.

This pattern of something happening that changes the status quo or disrupts our joyous experience is guaranteed. Early in life many of us begin to fear joy because of the potential for loss it carries.

Brené Brown calls this foreboding joy when as soon as we feel joy, we also feel fear and often predict what may happen to rip the joy away.

We got our new dog, Charlotte, this summer. (You’ll be hearing a lot about her over the months and years to come.) This was a big deal for us as we had put down our beloved 17-year-old Nina Bonita last summer. I had been living with a broken heart, a longing heart ever since.

Before Charlotte even arrived, I was afraid that something would go wrong and the adoption wouldn’t go through. Within moments of meeting her, I was afraid I was allergic to her and wouldn’t be able to keep her. By the second day, I was sure none of my parishioners would like her and I wouldn’t be able to bring her to work. And those were just the first invasive thoughts that robbed me of some of the joy of our earliest days. That’s foreboding joy at work.

Brown helps us understand that foreboding joy is a symptom of our losing tolerance for vulnerability. “When something good happens,” she says, “it’s as though we rush to beat vulnerability to the punch line.”

Yes, new dog who wiggled your way into my heart from the moment I saw you, I could lose you. I will lose you, someday, just like Nina Bonita. So rather than sit in that vulnerability and let it have its way with me, I’ll imagine all that might happen that would take Charlotte away from me. Now you can’t get me. I’ve already figured it out – oh, and I’m feeling anxious and am no longer living in the present moment – the beautiful, ordinary moments of bringing a new animal into our lives. It happens every day, in countless ways. Children laughing as the puppy licks their face. Widows stroking the fur on their new kitten. Children living with physical disabilities who experience the freedom of sitting atop a horse for the first time.

This low tolerance for vulnerability is a widespread and serious phenomenon, according to Brown. In addition to foreboding joy, there are other symptoms of what Brown calls vulnerability intolerance. Other symptoms include disappointment as a lifestyle, sidestepping excitement, low-grade disconnection, perfectionism, extremism, and numbing. All of these we do to avoid feeling vulnerable. If I am already disappointed, then it won’t hurt so much when things veer away from what I had hoped. “Don’t get your hopes up” is a familiar refrain as is “we’ll see…,” both of them keeping people at just enough distance, close but not too close. Brown calls perfectionism the 200-pound armor and points to the countless ways we numb our feelings.

What then is the answer? Three things, all of which are simple, but not necessarily easy.

The most powerful antidote to foreboding joy is practicing gratitude. In her research with joyful people, Brown discovered that every one of them had a gratitude practice. They weren’t grateful because they were joyful; they were joyful because they were grateful. Gratitude as it turns out is not attitude or a fixed state of one’s personality that some of us have and others do not. Gratitude is a feeling, and it must be cultivated with consistent practice. Feeling one thing you are grateful for each day is far more effective than making a rational list of seventeen things or, worse, trying to guilt yourself into feeling grateful.  

The second antidote is to focus on the ordinary things in our lives that bring us joy. What we miss when we lose things, whether it be an ability or a relationship, are the ordinary things. Think about COVID. Parishioners told me again and again how they missed the chatter and milling about before a service started – an ordinary thing. Or singing in the church choir or having drinks with friends on the deck. Ordinary. Brown encourages us to focus on the ordinary and stop the relentless pursuit of the extraordinary, for our ordinary lives carry the most beauty and most meaningful gifts.

The third antidote is to realize that, yes, we will all be hurt. There will be more loss in our lives. There will be disappointment. That is exactly why we need the reservoir of energy and hope and love that accompanies joy. We must allow ourselves to experience the ordinary and spectacular joys of life if we are to make it through the inevitable challenges and losses.

I would add that we need to know how to settle our nervous systems, how to calm ourselves. We live in a world stuck in an overdrive of fear, fatalistic thinking, worst case scenarios. We respond as though our lives are at risk, and in many ways they are. This has been made painfully clear with COVID. But here’s a thought, my friends: living in that state of overdrive doesn’t make us safer. It doesn’t keep the painful things from happening. Rather it makes us exhausted, depleted, and angry, with our nervous systems on high alert and our defenses fully engaged. We separate from each other physically, emotionally, and spiritually, each of these separations as damaging as the others.

Somehow, we must learn to settle ourselves, and learn to reassure and remind ourselves that we are loved. We are beloved creatures of this universe, which universe, I believe, loves us in return. You can experience that love in nature, in the eyes of a beloved, and deep within yourself.

When we connect with that place of knowing that we belong and are loved, I believe we are home. Return to that place often, my friends, and live there. Bring love and compassion into this world. Let’s do our parts to downshift from overdrive to neutral so that we can respond from a place of wisdom and timeliness and can help others recover the connection to the goodness within.

Then, as we do that, I believe our tolerance for joy and vulnerability does increase because we know that we are not what we produce, what we look like, or how we feel on any given day. We are precious, holy beings, here for this time. May it be so.  

Amen and blessed be.


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