My cat, Francisco Grande, is sitting in my lap as I type this. This isn’t unusual. If I don’t close my office door, eventually he’ll find his way into my office and into my lap. I like to think it’s because Francisco really loves me. He just can’t get enough of me!
This is the season of Advent, which is the four weeks leading up to our celebration of the
birth of Jesus on Christmas. Each of those weeks celebrates a different aspect of the new life that Jesus offers to those who trust him: hope, peace, joy, and love. Next Sunday starts the third week, the week of joy.
And as I sit here with Francisco Grande in my lap, I wonder if cats feel joy. I’m sure I’m late to the party on this one. I’m sure all of you have been wondering this for a long time. But seriously, do cats feel joy? I mean, as Francisco sits there purring away, is he happy? When he sees me come home from a long, grueling day at the donut shop or the Schlotzskys, does he do a happy kitty dance inside his head?
I fear the truth is otherwise. Just call me cynical, but I fear the reason is because my lap is the warmest place in a cold house. I also fear it is because, as cat’s go, he’s pretty needy and codependent.
I apologize to the cat people reading this, but I’m not even sure cats are capable of feeling real joy. Probably the best they can do is a sort of instinctual contentment. We meet their needs for food and warmth and shelter, so they deign to grace us with their presence, and occasionally jump in our laps and purr to prevent us from looking too deeply into the nature of the arrangement they have somehow finagled with us.
So, if that’s right, what’s the difference between us and cats. Why can we feel joy and they can’t? There are probably a lot of biochemical explanations relating to brain structure and development, but I think it boils down to relationships. We are capable of recognizing one another as individuals of value, apart from and independent of whatever sort of tangible benefits we can extract from one another. In other words, we are capable of approaching one another not with the question, “What can you do for me?” but with the question, “What can I do for you?”. In other, other words, we find our real, true joy in others—outside of ourselves.
And in this way, joy is distinct from happiness. I think cats probably DO experience a rudimentary sort of happiness because happiness is all about me. It’s about whatever makes me feel good in the moment. Now, don’t get me wrong. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s just not joy.
Unfortunately, a lot of the time we fail to distinguish between the two. We equate joy with happiness, so we live our lives trying to satisfy ourselves. But we eventually find that this just doesn’t work. Happiness is transitory and often leaves behind a void that we then feel the need to fill with more of the stuff that initially made us happy, but with diminishing returns, thus creating a vicious cycle.
Real joy, on the other hand, isn’t transitory. It doesn’t depend on the vagaries of the world around us, but is instead rooted in authentic relationship.
Jesus said one of the keys to an abundant, full life is to love your neighbor as yourself. That’s where you find joy. But there’s an even more important relationship within which to discover even deeper and more profound joy. Because Jesus said the first key to that abundant, full, eternal life, is to love God with everything you’ve got. That is where you find permanent, unending joy.
And, as much as I like Francisco Grande and appreciate how he keeps my lap warm, I’m not sure that’s something he can do.