The well of joy

As a clinical psychologist, I spend much of my professional time helping make sense of what happens when things go wrong. Anxiety, depression and other struggles can dominate conversations with my clients.

Unfortunately, we live in a world where the same can be true for many of us. Wars are raging around the globe. Here, in one of the world’s richest countries, millions live in poverty. Our government seems to be in a perpetual state of chaos. It is easy to reside in a kind of existential dread that permeates our hearts, minds and souls.

While it is important to reckon with the reality of the suffering that exists in the world, it is also important for us not to become overwhelmed by it. Joy is an essential antidote in a suffering world.

Proverbs 17:22 (ESV) tells us, “A joyful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.” For believers, joy is not just a perk of the Christian life; it’s a spiritual resource that helps us carry out our work in the world.

A dictionary might define “joy” as a state of happiness in response to external circumstances. But our kind of joy is one that rests in the knowledge of what God has done and will continue to do. Our kind of joy is not dependent on what is happening in the world; it is a commitment to see good and recognize the presence of good in the world and in ourselves, regardless of our circumstances. Joy is the product of our ever-present knowledge of God’s movement and work in our lives.

I want to be clear that I’m not suggesting that joy means we ignore all the bad. While some of us may have a tendency to use our faith to try to pretend our trials away (a process we mental health professionals call spiritual bypassing), the joy I’m suggesting does not negate the presence of evil or suffering in the world.

In fact, tapping into joy in our lives is what helps us fight injustice and work toward good for all. Joy keeps us going when we want to give up and keeps us fueled for the journey ahead by reminding us that suffering is an experience and not a destination.

As many cultures that have experienced historical violence and trauma can attest, joy is often the thing that helps us survive the unspeakable. As the proverb says, joy is a medicine and a healing balm, and when we lose it, our vitality dries up and disappears. It is no accident that we find moments of laughter at memorial celebrations, no accident that we spent the first few months of the pandemic lockdowns making jokes on the internet. Joy reminds us that we are alive when things feel perilous.

Because we live in a world that can exhaust and overwhelm us, we must be intentional about organizing our lives in a way that allows us access to the gift of joy. Ross Gay writes in “The Book of Delights” about his decision to find delights intentionally on a daily basis. He says of the process: “I felt my life to be more full of delight. Not without sorrow or fear or pain or loss. But more full of delight.” We must remember that joy and sorrow can, and will, coexist.

To be intentional about accessing joy is to make a practice of holding sacred time for the things that help us feel most content, at peace and close to God. For some, it may be physical exercise or spending time with our most beloved friends or family. For others, it might be time in nature, crafting or cooking. For others, it might be listening to music, committing to a devotional or other spiritual practice, or playing a game.

In her book “Rest Is Resistance: A Manifesto,” Tricia Hersey proclaims that resting is an explicit resistance to a capitalist society that demands we treat our bodies as dispensable and our souls as inconsequential. While joy and rest are not the same, joy can most certainly be found in rest. And rest can help us be more open to the joy in our lives.

There is no single right way. The point here is that to have joy as a resource, we must decide to make it a part of our lives. We must actively seek out joy rather than waiting for it to come to us.

When I am helping clients navigate depression or recover from burnout, I often ask them to identify the drains and wells in their lives. Drains are things that deplete and exhaust us. Wells are things that energize and excite us. Wells refill our proverbial cups, while drains cause them to empty.

Both are necessary parts of our lives. But when we are able to identify the wells, we can be intentional about having access to them all around our lives so that we never have to get empty. This is the power of joy! Our ability to access it regularly and often allows us to operate from a place of overflow rather than depletion. Simply put, joy sustains us for the journey.

For each of us, this is an individualized process. Ask yourself: What lights me up? What makes me feel most alive?

What would it be like to organize our lives around our joys, just as biblical cities were built around wells? What if those wells in our lives — those things that sustain and revitalize us — become nonnegotiables, so that all the mundane tasks of our lives have to fall into place in relation to them?

To organize ourselves around joy in this way is to participate in a reparative process, declining to sacrifice ourselves and our spirits to an unjust world, instead claiming a holy retention of our goodness and our “godness.” To recognize the reality of our goodness is to acknowledge that we are deserving of light, joyful, playful moments. Those moments can then become the home base from which we navigate the world.

Joy keeps us going when we want to give up and keeps us fueled for the journey ahead by reminding us that suffering is an experience and not a destination.

In the early days of the pandemic, a highlight each day at my house was pulling up John Krasinski’s “Some Good News” as dinnertime viewing. My laptop joined us at the table each evening to provide a few bright spots amid the dire headlines. The stories of COVID patients being discharged from the hospital to cheers and applause, Zoom singalongs with the cast of “Hamilton” — in the spring of 2020, these bits of brightness felt like a lifeline to me.

And I’m not alone: a recent study from psychologists in the U.K. dug deeper into the “why” behind the seemingly obvious phenomenon of the positive effects of good news on our well-being.

The implications of that “why” should spark our imaginations for the way we tell stories about our work in the world. Your ministry might be changing lives in all sorts of ways — but the stories you share about your ministry might be doing that, too.

Research has long confirmed the effects of seeing bad news on our minds and our health. On the one hand, it makes us feel worse — but on the other, thanks to evolution, we’re wired to pay attention to anything that might threaten us.

This particular study, though, looked at the effects of seeing good news stories after bad news stories, as a kind of counteractive antidote.

“The group that was shown negative news stories followed by positive ones fared far better than people who were only shown a negative news story,” writes one of the researchers on the study. “They reported less decline in mood — instead feeling uplifted. They also held more positive views of humanity generally.”

The good news that made the biggest difference for this group? Stories of kindness, of human beings showing up for each other.

The researchers tried out other kinds of positive news, seeing “how people exposed to a negative news story followed by an amusing one (such as swearing parrots, award-winning jokes or hapless American tourists) fared.” But when it came to overall uplifting effects on participants’ mood and hope for humanity, parrots and tourists were no match for acts of kindness — stories “such as acts of heroism, people providing free veterinary care for stray animals, or philanthropy towards unemployed and homeless people.”

The research pointed to several reasons why seeing stories of kindness may help counteract the doom and gloom of the 24-hour news cycle — for example, the writer notes, it can “remind us of our connection with others through shared values” and can act as a kind of “emotional reset button, replacing feelings of cynicism with hope, love and optimism.”

In the conclusion to her news piece on this study, the researcher writes, “Perhaps including more kindness-based content in news coverage could prevent ‘mean world syndrome’ — where people believe the world is more dangerous than it actually is, leading to heightened fear, anxiety and pessimism.”

Of course, the world is incredibly dangerous for many, many people — and positive headlines are no match for the harsh reality some of our neighbors have to face each day. The simple act of reading good news is not, in itself, the way to a better world. I think, though, that the researcher’s article on this particular study intends to critique the way news coverage takes advantage of our threat-detection wiring. The researcher wants to push those working in news media to consider balancing their coverage and including true stories of kindness along with the bad news.

I think, too, that there is a challenge here for all of us who work in Christian institutions, whose job it is to share the good news we’ve been given.

“The Good News Jesus embodied was news. Something to share, to proclaim,” writes Debie Thomas in a piece for The Christian Century provocatively titled “Reclaiming the E word” (the “E,” in this case, being “evangelism”). “We’ve become so adept at articulating who we are not and what we reject. But can we also articulate who we are? What we affirm?” she asks.

Can we share the good news of how we strive to embody the good news?

Of course, we should be thinking about the logistics, the concrete results, the returns on investment, the actual tangible work that we are doing and the difference that we are making. There is something, though, that I don’t want us to lose sight of — the fact that the way we share about our ministries matters, because the effects on the people who see our stories might be greater than we can imagine.

I have the immense privilege and joy of getting to work with various teams here at Leadership Education at Duke Divinity and hear about the impact our grantees and partner organizations are having in the church and the world.

Seeing their inspiring stories, acknowledging the hope they give me, stirs up in me a greater urgency and a heightened awareness of the stakes in my communications work. How can I help get the word out about these incredible ministries, not to boost web traffic, but to help change hearts and lives?

The stories we tell about our ministries matter. We never know who might be listening, watching, hoping for the relief of seeing an act of love on a loveless day.

Here’s what I want to know: How do you share the stories of kindness and care that come out of your ministry? Send me a note — I always enjoy more good news.

Low-status neighborhoods need talent retention. Instead, what they get is talent extraction, says Majora Carter.

“You are led to believe you need to leave — you need to measure success by how far you get away from there,” said Carter, a real estate developer and consultant who does work in her hometown neighborhood of Hunts Point in the South Bronx.

Carter, whose own family has experienced some of the ill effects of gentrification and predatory practices, has dedicated her efforts to building up her neighborhood and others.

Her projects include a local park and a coffee shop. In 2001, she founded Sustainable South Bronx, which aims to “achieve environmental justice through economically sustainable projects informed by community needs.” She also co-founded the Southern Bronx River Watershed Alliance and has been involved in numerous environmental and green jobs initiatives.

Reclaiming Your Community

Carter wrote the book “Reclaiming Your Community: You Don’t Have to Move Out of Your Neighborhood to Live in a Better One” — which was endorsed by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Seth Godin — and gave a 2022 TED Talk on the same theme.

She is president of the Majora Carter Group, which offers consulting services in environmental assessment, compliance and planning. She has received many awards, including a 2005 MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” that described her as “a relentless and charismatic urban strategist” and New York University’s Martin Luther King Jr. Award for Humanitarian Service.

She spoke with Faith & Leadership’s Sally Hicks about her work in the South Bronx. The following is an edited transcript.

Faith & Leadership: Talk a little bit about the neighborhoods you work in and write about. You use the term “low-status” rather than more typical descriptors, and you actually begin your book with a glossary. Why?

Majora Carter

Majora Carter: Most folks, when they use “poor” or “underprivileged” or “underresourced,” blah, blah, blah — it implies poverty is there. “Low-status” implies something much larger and deeper is at work. There’s a high status and there’s a lower status, and inequality is simply assumed.

It’s the places where the health outcomes are lower, where the educational attainment is lower. Yes, poverty exists more frequently in those areas as well, and there’s often a lack of hope in terms of the future of the community, both for people in the neighborhood and outside it.

And it can be anywhere. Urban, rural, suburban. It can be inner cities, Native American reservations, white towns where there was some industry and it’s long gone.

What we see happening all the time is that the bright kids, the ones who are academically or artistically or even athletically inclined, are led to believe that they need to grow up and get out of those neighborhoods. That’s really the underlying thing that just everybody gets. I don’t care where they’re from.

That’s why our approach to community development is a talent retention strategy, really.

F&L: Part of this mindset is what you call the perception of “poverty as a cultural attribute.” The community can’t change — it isn’t changeable — and therefore the only solution is leaving.

MC: It’s baked in, this idea that poverty is part of the culture. So that’s what you plan for, whether you’re an elected planner, whether you’re an elected official or part of the “nonprofit industrial complex.” That is what you’re planning for.

There are several industries essentially that profit off that, and that’s what we’re trying to work against.

F&L: You use the term “nonprofit industrial complex.” What’s your critique of investment done according to traditional means?

MC: It’s a structure that was designed to take care of needs. But if we understand that and then we look at the money that’s being spent and we don’t see that the amount of money we spend is actually reducing all those social ills, then you kind of have to wonder, “Is it working?”

I’m not saying that [the nonprofit sector] doesn’t play a great role. It does. I’m just saying let’s just ask that question. Stop doing the exact same things over and over and over again.

Huge amounts of government-subsidized affordable housing [are built] for the lowest income bands. You’re not building economic diversity in any of the housing.

Health conditions happen because of the environmental abuses in the same neighborhoods, and we don’t address any of the underlying things but are managing the health conditions that are here, whether they’re diabetes, obesity, heart conditions. Then we are surprised that those numbers stay the same?

We all seem to be surprised every single year. It’s mind-boggling to me. I know I’m not the only person who sees this.

We’re managing poverty. We have plenty of systems to manage people and their poverty. It’s an incredibly paternalistic system that definitely has its roots in white supremacy that says, “You really will never be better, so we’re going to help you — not that much, but just enough.”

We keep seeing that over and over again, and yes, it does bother me very much.

F&L: What have you done in your own neighborhood, and what were you trying to accomplish with your projects?

MC: Ultimately, what I try to do is to help folks in my community, and communities like it, to not believe the narrative that our communities are places that are meant to be escaped from. We actually do have the capacity to revitalize our community from the inside out.

It started in my early work, when I was in the nonprofit sector for a number of years. I’ve always done project-based community development, because I’ve always felt the people needed to see and experience something different from what only screams poverty.

Again, the environment of our neighborhood literally often does say that. People know they need to leave their neighborhood in order to experience a nice park or a decent supermarket or a nice place to have a cocktail or a coffee with their friends.

What does it say about where you’re from? It says, “You don’t really need to be here if you have any sense of aspiration for yourself.” And most people do.

What I’ve tried to show is that we have wonderful things to offer people within our neighborhoods. The projects range from spearheading the development of the first waterfront park our neighborhood’s had in over 60 years. It was the only park — waterfront or not — that actually had grass and trees and the kind of places that made people feel, “Oh wait, this is a really special place to be.”

Then we did some work where we helped people have both a personal and a financial stake in the improvement of their environment. So we’ve created green-collar job training and placement systems.

F&L: Tell me about the cafe; that you’re sitting in right now while we’re talking on Zoom.

MC: In the early days, our work was more focused on consulting, but then it didn’t take us long to realize that it was really real estate development that we needed to be focused on.

We started in small multifamily [housing], and then we realized the other piece was lifestyle infrastructure. In part, we did that because it was nearly impossible for us to get the kind of financing that we needed to do larger projects. I didn’t really know much about real estate development, frankly, at the time.

But when we realized that what people were leaving the neighborhood to experience was places like cafes and coffee shops and things of that nature, we actually sort of used our own good credit. We made relationships with some of the local landowners that had businesses and got very, very reasonable rents on a couple of spaces in the commercial storefronts of their buildings.

We really wanted a cafe, because, again, we did an enormous amount of market research in the form of surveys and focus groups to understand what was it that made people feel good about being in their own neighborhood or not. Why were they leaving the neighborhood to experience something good?

So we got a lease, and we realized that most of the folks who wanted to build a cafe did not have the capacity to do it. We went to Starbucks, actually, and they were just like, “Nah. Your market is too emerging.”

That was really hard to hear, but then we ended up partnering with this awesome group called Birch Coffee, and we did a joint venture with them to open up our very first coffee shop. But it was also clear that we needed to be more about our own culture from the cafe’s perspective, and so that’s why we branched off into the Boogie Down Grind Café [in 2017] and rebranded ourselves.

It’s like an homage to hip-hop. Where I’m sitting right now, you take off the cushion and it becomes a stage, with a great big plate-glass window behind me so people can see it, for open mics or all sorts of wonderful things.

The day we were protested, we were hosting a workshop in this space for people who wanted low and 0% interest loans for either homeownership or for business development. It was kind of tragic and sad but ironic. But that’s what we did.

But those types of things — building out a space so that the community could come in and fill it and be seen in a cool place where people felt really good about how they looked — it was really fun, and we had a really nice time with it.

F&L: You mentioned a protest. You’ve gotten recognition for but also criticism of your work. Why do you think that is?

MC: Because Black girls from neighborhoods like this are not supposed to do this. I am acting way above my station, and I’m not supposed to do it.

We are just so duped into this idea that the only thing we can really be is just managed where we are, and that’s why [the detractors] behave that way.

I don’t know what they thought or what they think they’re getting out of it, but I no longer wish to continue to allow the idea that only a few companies around the country, in any city that you’re in, are the only ones. They’re almost always led by white men.

That’s why our communities are the way they are. I don’t feel that’s the only way our communities can develop — and why don’t we have that conversation?

But yeah, being a Black woman just paints another target on my head from everybody concerned.

F&L: I wanted to ask you just to clarify one thing. Several times you’ve said, “We did this. We did that.” When you refer to the “we,” are you referring to a development company?

MC: My company, yes. It’s interesting that I get that question. I really do think that it’s still hard for people to believe that I do this as a Black woman from a neighborhood like this. Of course I have a company. It’s small, but of course I have a company. I’m long on vision and short on balance sheet, but even functioning in that way, it’s still us, still doing the work of a developer.

F&L: What projects are you working on now?

MC: We’re redeveloping a commercial property, which is a former rail station. It’s a feasibility study to do an assemblage, which would be roughly 1,000 units of mixed-income housing, including homeownership, and about 400,000 to 500,000 square feet of manufacturing and commercial space.

That’s my dream. Literally, I want to be able to co-lead that project, and then I’ll retire. I will show that it can be done by someone who looks like me, and then I’ll walk. That is my prayer. Because I’m just too old. I’m going to be 60 in a few years, and I’m done. I’m not going to lie.

F&L: Even on Zoom, you do not look like someone who’s talking about retirement.

MC: Oh no, I am. I swear I’ve aged a lot over these past few years. I’m grateful. I know I’m blessed that I have the ability to do what I do. I’m still here, despite being smacked around as much as I’ve been. I can still smile and laugh about most of it — it makes me super, super happy — so that’s great.

F&L: If a congregation wants to do this kind of work, what would you recommend? I know you’ve worked with the Parish Collective organization.

MC: I was at the last Parish Collective [event]. I had actually been talking to a lot of them about, “What are the roles churches can play in development?”

If they do have property, how are they using it to support folks? More economically diverse communities are actually safer economically, socially. Spiritually as well.

But also really paying attention to predatory speculation. How do we support the homeowners that are already in those communities to keep them from falling victim to predators? I think churches can play a huge role in that, and so some of us are actually starting to have those conversations around it, which is great.

F&L: Do you come from a faith background?

MC: No, no. I am a Christian, definitely a follower. [But] I didn’t become a Christian until years later. I do feel like this is my ministry. And my ability to love my neighbor — I feel like this is my contribution. This is how I can give, and I love it.

Most of us have probably heard that self-care is important for our mental health. And it’s true! Self-care is a critical part of our plan for working toward mental wellness.

Mental health has become an everyday, mainstream topic of conversation in recent years. And that’s a good thing. There are now many resources at our disposal to help us think about how to be as healthy and whole as possible.

But the challenge of this conversation becoming mainstream is that certain critically important pieces of our mental wellness can become so diluted as to be almost unrecognizable.

One area in which the wellness industry often misses the mark is self-care. Most of the imagery we see related to self-care essentially equates to pampering, luxury and disconnection: indulgent spa days, expensive trips with friends to Cabo, binge watching TV.

While these things may feel good — and we all deserve to feel good — self-care is much bigger and broader than simply self-soothing or enjoyment, especially for Christians.

Self-care is a multifaceted act of stewardship, which attends to multiple life demands. Self-care entails building a system of practices to support our living the rich and satisfying life that Jesus talks about in John 10:10. It is an evolving process, in conversation with the Holy Spirit, that honors the whole person.

Self-care is, first, recognizing that we are God’s creation, made in God’s image, and thus good and valuable and deserving of care. This means we have a responsibility to get curious about what we need to thrive, recognizing that that is different for each of us and that it changes over time as we grow and evolve.

We live in a world that does not often encourage us to care for ourselves in the ways that count. Our capitalist society can leave us feeling overworked, underpaid, sleep-deprived and going through the motions.

In the light of this reality, self-care might mean saying no to a paid opportunity in order to rest or spend time with your family. Self-care might mean prioritizing your exercise and sleep to support your overall physical health, even if you’re more interested in doing other things. Self-care might mean going to your therapy appointments, even when they are hard and uncomfortable.

Self-care might mean committing to a devotional practice, even when the timing feels inconvenient, because you know you feel and live better when you are spiritually grounded. Self-care might mean committing to a routine that helps you feel more balanced, even when your preference is to be totally spontaneous. Self-care might mean saying no when it’s easier and less scary to say yes.

To be invested in self-care is to wonder, “Is this action or routine getting me closer to where I want to be or further away from it?” Real self-care considers the bigger picture and has the end goal in mind.

The reason that self-soothing is so much more popular than actual self-care is that it addresses an immediate issue. Simply put, manicures and binge watching and emotional eating usually help us feel better in the moment. But it’s important to remember that they are temporary Band-Aids. While self-care can include some of these things, it prioritizes long-term healing.

Self-soothing does not do enough to care for ourselves in holistic ways. Emotions can be powerful motivators, and it’s our natural human tendency to avoid bad feelings and prioritize good ones.

As a mental health professional, I am a firm believer that our emotions are a key part of our experience in the world. It’s important that we attend to them, but we must not be ruled by them. Emotions can be intense, fleeting and ever-changing. They are not the whole story, so they can’t be all the information we use to navigate the world. They are a piece of the larger puzzle.

Other parts of that puzzle include our relationships with others, our physical health and wellness, our spiritual wholeness, our work and vocational responsibilities, and our communal commitments. A self-care plan (key word: plan!) considers the whole of who we are and attends to those internal and external demands.

I’m aware that by now self-care might sound a bit bigger than you bargained for. This is why the encouragement is to invite the Holy Spirit into the process. In Romans, Paul reminds us: “The Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us” (Romans 8:26 NIV).

The truth of the matter is that sometimes our lives get so complicated that it is hard to figure out what we need to do to care for ourselves. But what we do know is that God is invested in the totality of us — mind, body and spirit.

God equips all manner of professionals to help us identify healthy practices, and God sends the Holy Spirit to help us discern which ones we are called to. Take a moment and look at the big picture of your life, with its twists, turns and intricacies. What are the key issues you’re feeling called to attend to right now, and what commitments can you make in that regard? As you discern and then implement, remember that the Spirit is present to help you along the way.