"We are not measured by the trials we meet -- only by those we overcome."
- - Spencer W. Kimball
August 23, 2012
Ode to Joy
by Orson Scott Card

Adam fell that men might be.

Men are that they might have joy.

That’s what we refer to as the doctrine of the Fortunate Fall, and we Latter-day Saints embrace it completely.

The Fall of Adam did not bring calamity upon souls that would otherwise have lived in paradise for eternity; on the contrary, it set us all upon a road whose ultimate aim is to bring us joy.

But what in the world do we mean by “joy”?

We know a great deal more nowadays about the transient physical states of our bodies and brains that we call “emotions.”

We know that rage, for instance, does not “vent” when we express our anger — on the contrary, expressing our anger increases it, while those who “stifle” their anger feel far less of it — and less stress — than those who “let it out.”

“Expressing” our sexual desires — especially our harmful or selfish ones — does not dissipate them, but rather numbs us so that it takes ever-stronger stimulation to satisfy them.

In other words, emotions are a condition of the body, and the body’s response to emotions is often the opposite of what we expect — or what philosophers and psychologists of earlier eras thought was true.

So this thing called “joy,” which is supposed to be the purpose of the existence of mankind, is surely not a mere transient emotional state.

If we think of joy as referring to stimulation of the pleasure centers of the brain, that is certainly pleasure; but if that were the purpose of life, then there is no shortage of drugs — not to mention hypothetical electrical-stimulus implants — that could leave us in a state of such perfect euphoria that we might easily die of starvation or even thirst because we had no notion that we needed anything.

I have heard some say that “joy,” in the scriptural sense, is more of a spiritual phenomenon. We don’t feel it in the body, except when in the grip of flesh-transcending rapture.

Others even claim that real joy is postponed until the next life. But it is my personal opinion that this is not so. Men are that they might have joy — not eventual joy, but joy.

Nor do I accept the neo-platonic ideal of joy as eternal contemplation of perfect truth and beauty — i.e., the apprehension of God. First, I don’t think God is an abstraction, but a person; and second, I can’t imagine anything joyful about spending eternity in a spiritual state identical to the drug-induced ecstasy available to drug users already.

Addicts have reported believing that they were contemplating God during their hallucinatory state. I don’t think they really did.

Nor do I think that a condition of perpetual spectatorship sounds like an interesting way to spend eternity. Is that really what God created all of this for — so that he could have a bunch of admirers?

J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis conferred about an idea of joy that came from the excitement of a compelling idea or milieu. Lewis called it “northernness” when he first made the acquaintance of ancient epics in the Germanic or Celtic tradition.

But gradually he came to realize that the joy he experienced then was the strong emotion that resulted from the discovery of something powerful and new and Good. And it passed, as all emotions pass.

And yet some residual remained. In fact, as Lewis’s wife, Joy, entered and brightened his life, then died of cancer, he found that joy (the coincidence of name and word was serendipitous) persisted in the midst of grief.

Joy, as the purpose of human life, is not a transient emotional state. It is a condition that one achieves in which, despite the emotions that come and go, you know that the way you have lived and are living and will live your life is productive. It is Worth Doing.

I don’t mean mere “self-esteem.” Sociopaths have self-esteem by the bushel. Nor does joy come from what one possesses. Obviously not from material goods — they do not rise with us in the resurrection, no matter how many grave goods are interred beside us.

But I speak also of things we’ve created, or things we’ve learned. Our creations — including our families, but also institutions, companies, works of art and literature, reputation, ideas, even humble acts of service — may be good, but we do not own them.

Whatever we create, we set loose in the world to be used by others as they choose. The children we create soon make their own decisions; anything else may stand or crumble by mere chance, or may be distorted by the actions of others, or may never be noticed at all. Nothing that we make can stay as we made it. Neither, then, can the joy derived from making it.

But isn’t God himself joyful in the midst of the same condition? His whole work and glory are to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man — in other words, to give us the opportunity to learn how to be co-creators. Yet how many of his children disappoint him? How often does he see those he loves degrade themselves and miss their chance for the greatest joy?

God’s creations wax and wane, but he does not have less joy because not every outcome is good. The very fact that we have the freedom to choose whether our outcome will be good or not is part of the Goodness of God’s creation; he succeeds even in the moment of our failure, because he has given us the opportunity to demonstrate what our deepest desires are, and what degree of joy we are willing to receive.

I think of Joy as being tied to florescence. (No, I did not misspell that.) All the sub-creations that I listed above, though we cannot possess them and they do not stay as we made them, are nevertheless reasons for us to feel joy.

Instead of an eternity of static contemplation of an unchanging God, the joyful future is an eternity of active participation in the continuing creation of an ever-growing, ever-learning God.

(Take no offense at the notion of a God who learns. When he draws intelligences out of darkness into light, and gives them Law whereby to show their will toward good or evil, their capacity, and their courage, then he is learning who they are even as they themselves learn it, though he apprehends their nature sooner than they do themselves. A God who already knows all is a God who can change nothing; a God who creates is also a God who learns.)

The life of God is a florescent life — a life of constant bloom, of setting seed that then grows of itself. This great heaven in which our little globe spins and orbits is not the constant result of a minute creation in detail at every moment, always under the active control of God.

Rather it is a universe of law, in which God’s creations act by their own volition. He is not a puppetmaster or watchmaker, but a gardener, at least metaphorically.

He is in continuous bloom, and the blooms set seed and the seeds take root. He forces nothing; they grow of themselves; they — we — grow into ourselves. And some of us floresce in our own turn, bringing forth blossoms great and small.

It is in that florescence that I think we can find the joy that man was made for. We are meant to be gardeners ourselves, and whatever creations we are able to bring about — including our service to others, as we help make the community around us a better place, one blossom at a time — are joy.

Even when, in our ignorance, we make or serve imperfectly (and we always do), he judges us by what we intended our works to be, and learns (that word again) which of us can be trusted always to act for the good of the garden.

Joy comes not from what we own, but from what we create and set free in the world around us. Joy is the flowering, fruiting, planting life, each of us in whatever way we can find, but contributing always to God’s own garden, so that we, by our flowering, are also his flowering; our seeds are his seeds; and thus the project of joy goes on and all, all of us rejoicing in the flowering of others as much as in the things that we ourselves set to seed.

In this joy, we are not erased as individuals, but are ourselves, individually, both samples and co-makers of the mighty works of God. We add to him, and to each other, and we are also added upon.

That is joy; and in the midst of sorrow and loss, grief and disappointment, that joy of good Making, of making Good, continues unbroken. That is joy, and we do not wait for death in order to partake of it.


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More by Orson Scott Card

About Orson Scott Card

Orson Scott Card is the author of the novels Ender's Game, Ender's Shadow, and Speaker for the Dead, which are widely read by adults and younger readers, and are increasingly used in schools.

Besides these and other science fiction novels, Card writes contemporary fantasy (Magic Street, Enchantment, Lost Boys), biblical novels (Stone Tables, Rachel and Leah), the American frontier fantasy series The Tales of Alvin Maker (beginning with Seventh Son), poetry (An Open Book), and many plays and scripts.

Card was born in Washington and grew up in California, Arizona, and Utah. He served a mission for the LDS Church in Brazil in the early 1970s. Besides his writing, he teaches occasional classes and workshops and directs plays. He also teaches writing and literature at Southern Virginia University.

Card currently lives in Greensboro, North Carolina, with his wife, Kristine Allen Card, and their youngest child, Zina Margaret.

More about Orson Scott Card

Orson Scott Card currently serves as second counselor in the bishopric.

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