September 19, 2019 - 12:40pm

Am I allowed to feel joyful? It’s an argument I often have with myself. And I recently found a book that has helped crystallise my inner debate. Christian Wiman, a lauded American poet, has collected his favourite poems on the subject but it is no “Little Book of Joy”, designed to cheer us up while defecating. On the contrary, in his opening essay he wrestles seriously with my question. Like him, saturated in the increasingly horrifying news cycle, I too often react to the idea of joy with affront:

Ruined migrants spilling over borders, rabid politicians frothing for power, terrorists detonating their own insides like terrible literal metaphors for an entire time gone wrong — ‘how with this rage shall beauty hold a plea’, as Shakespeare, staring down his own age’s accelerating grimace, wondered.
- Christian Wiman, JOY

The fact that Shakespeare asked the same question should give me pause. I know that every age wrings its hands in despair. That Stephen Pinker bloke is always saying that things are actually getting better; we know that the news is just a curation of disasters which leaves out the swathes or human life where goodness and truth and ordinary happiness still reign. And yet I, like most vaguely ethically attuned humans, still ask – “with so much suffering, is my joy ok?”

Wiman returns again and again to a poem by Jack Gilbert, A Brief for the Defence, written after 9/11. In it he begins with the suffering of the world and then makes an impassioned case that the true response to injustice requires fighting for a better world and hanging onto our joy:

If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,
we lessen the importance of their deprivation.
We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.
- A Brief for the Defence

We live in an attention economy, and one of the reasons the news is so overwhelming is that anger, fear and outrage are one of the most reliable drivers of web traffic. To look entirely away from injustice and suffering is cowardice, but I’ve become convinced that allowing ourselves to be saturated in it, without also directing attention to what is true, good and lovely, is counter-productive. I want “stubborn gladness” in this world, because without it, what are we fighting for?

Elizabeth Oldfield is the former head of Theos. Her writing has appeared in the FT, Prospect and The Times. Her Twitter handle is @esoldfield