Can we find joy in America? Inspired once again by my bad attitude and Wendell Berry

Is there joy left in America, inspired by my bad attitude and Wendell Berry. Liturgy of Life.


I’m driving home from the grocery store (I had to make a second trip after burning the first attempt at a  my husband’s birthday cake) and as I turn onto our road the monologue in my head goes something like,


“Geez I hope I don’t burn this cake again, ugg I hope he isn’t disappointed in the collard greens, I wonder if we will make it over to our play date on time, I hope we aren’t late, I hope we don’t stay to long, I hope the balloon doesn’t pop, I’ll go crazy if Zenie doesn’t nap, I just don’t know if this meal is going to come together right . . .” and on and on.


I look in the rear view mirror and notice that my daughter has turned her socks into hand puppets who are singing a surprisingly accurate duet version of American Pie.   And I wonder, was I once also a cheerful little kid like my daughter? How did I become a person who can make a misery out of going to a play date and planning a birthday dinner? Isn’t this exactly the kind of stuff I’ve always wanted to have time to do? Why don’t I just stop complaining and enjoy my life?


And that’s just it . . .  joy it seems, is almost entirely absent from my day.


Now if you asked me if I enjoy my work, I’d say yes. But the reality is I do almost all of it with complaining and grumbling.   Joy is no where in sight.  My daughter on the other hand is a fountain of joy welling up and flowing over. Sure she has the occasional temper tantrum, but like most kids, she  loves to love the world. She loves to be excited, to laugh, to make games.  I’ve watched her squeal with delight as we go over the tiniest bump on the road or turn scraps of paper into magical treasures.


Kids it seems are naturals at joy.


I read this article in the Atlantic this week about how in Finland they don’t teach kids to read in kindergarten, instead they play and use a curriculum specifically aimed at teaching kids to learn with joy.


Then later in our reading group’s Wendell Berry essay from The Art of the Commonplace he talks about joy and work in America,


“The growth of the exploiters’ revolution on this continent has been accompanied by the growth of the idea that work is beneath human dignity, particularly any form of hand work. We have made it our overriding ambition to escape work, and as a consequence have debased work until it is only fit to escape from. . .


.  .  .  All the ancient wisdom that has come down to us counsels otherwise. It tells us that work is necessary to us, as much a part of our condition as mortality; that good work is our salvation and our joy; that shoddy or dishonest or self-serving work is our curse and our doom. We have tried to escape the sweat and sorrow promised in Genesis-only to find that, in order to do so, we must forswear love, excellence, health and joy.


I remember a time while volunteering in a clinic in Uganda I spent a day in the village with the family of one of the nurses who  I had befriended.  Their family was poor, barely making a living selling coffee beans for export, they lived in dirt huts and cooked in one pot over an open fire.  Watching her family at work, drying coffee beans and stirring pots, my friend turned to me and said, “they work so hard, do you see how they suffer?”


She was sincere,  and I knew that they lived in poverty like I would never know.  I was certain that they worked hard, and had a difficult life, but  as for suffering, there was no sign of it.  Watching them at work was a pure demonstration of joy.    It bubbled out of them, in the movements of their hips as they sang and danced, in their big, boisterous belly laughter, in the way they were quick to hug and joke and smile.  Though they suffered deeply, it had not taken their joy.


As far as material things I have so much more than my Ugandan friends.  And I am grateful to be home with my daughter and love the things that our family is involved in.  Yet the idea of actually working with joy during my day, is for the most part, a foreign concept.  When I am actually at work my mind is racing with complaints and anxieties, my words to my daughter mostly consist of giving directions intermixed with a few scoldings every now and then.


And maybe it is just me.


Or maybe it is as Berry suggests, that we are part of an economy which instructs us to work without joy.  Maybe the industrialism that has shaped America insists that work be grueling, whether it be on an assembly line, or in a cubicle. Our current system demand most often that our  work be disconnected from the rest of our lives and that it be fast paced, keeping us moving at a rate which leaves us feeling constantly behind, always trying to keep up with a standard that seems a little out of reach.


We end each day with the wish for “just one more hour” and a feeling like a bit of a failure for not having accomplished more.   This ethic isn’t just one of our workplace but of our homes and our schools.  The idea that we might enjoy what we are doing, while we are doing it, and that we would end the day with a sense of satisfaction is almost un-American, it sounds a bit too much like leisure, something we only deserve to have on our vacations.   For us work has become what you must do so you can some day get the chance to do something you want to do, if that someday ever comes.


But, at least for those of us who are Christians, we believe that God is good and that He is in all things.  And more than that He is in us and has given us the capacity to make work our daily form of worship.  And just like Adam, tending the Garden of Eden, in our work, we can know and experience him.  In Christ even the most miserable of work is not devoid of the possibility of joy.


So you know what I did, I took note of my Ugandan friends and when we got home we started baking the second cake (which instead of burning ended up under-cooked and soggy in the middle, third times a charm right?) and we didn’t rush.  And while we worked we sang and sang and sang. We sang silly songs and crazy songs and we laughed.  And you know what, it helped.


Sure it was just one afternoon. But it was one afternoon reclaimed from joyless living.


We will see if I can keep it up tomorrow.


I’d love to know your thoughts.





This post is part of a series of reflections on The Art of The Commonplace.  For more Liturgy of Life, subscribe or follow on facebook. To learn more about our reading group, click here, or check out our facebook group. We would love to have you read and ponder along with us.


Thanks for being here,



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