Nibley and The Fear of Joy

My my my, that Mayan Apocalypse is already a distant memory, isn’t it!  What was all that hullabaloo about, anyhow? We seem to have to go through this near every year, as some new preacher predicts some new last day (and as Latter-day Saints, this last-day-watching should peculiarly interest us).

Why this silly little doomsday fixation?  Why, as more than one comedian noted, were we all deep down really hoping the Mayans were right?  Why this secret hope, even in jest, that the curtain would finally hit the cast at last? I have a gut-hunch that the sudden end of the world would have let us off the hook–but I don’t mean from our bills, our debts, our so-called responsibilities, etc and etc.  No, I mean we’d be let off the hook from living life.

Nibley once noted that what mankind fears most of all, more than death and pain and hell, is joy. He declares more articulately than I:

“What are we afraid of? What do men fear most? Believe it or not, it is joy. Against joy, society erects its most massive bulwarks…It is not hell that men fear most, but heaven…Everything in our society conspires to dampen and control joy. Our sordid little pleasures are carefully channeled and commercialized; our pitiful escapes to alcohol and drugs are a plain admission that we will not allow ourselves to have joy in our right senses. Only little children can face up to it. They have no hidden guilt to admonish cautious behavior or make joy appear unseemly…Why do we insist on taking ourselves so seriously? Because we’re scared to death of being found out…

“…to lend dignity and authority to this pretentious fraud, we have invented the solemn business and drudgery of every day life. To avoid answering questions, we pretend to be very busy–my how busy!

“In every conservatory of music, there is the student who practices scales and exercises with dedicated zeal, for 8 or 10 hours a day; or works away for months or years, with terrifying persistence, at a single piece. This is the devoted grind that impresses others with his matchless industry, but don’t be fooled! This drudge is not working at all! He is running away from work. His ferocious application to dull routine is but a dodge to avoid the novel and frightening effort of using his head. And never, never, for all his years of toil, does he become a real musician. (He usually becomes an executive.)

“In the manner of this poor dupe, the whole majestic world goes about its ostentatious enterprises, the important busy work of every day life… Sorrow is a negative thing…to live with it requires only resignation…humanity, in a thousand ways, declares it’s almost unanimous preference for drab and depressing routine.

“If the world is a dark and dreary place, it is because we prefer it that way; for there is nothing in the world that can keep a man from joy if joy is what he wants…It’s altogether too much for us to bear. We must learn by degrees to live with it. It isn’t strange that we are afraid of so strange and overpowering a thing, that we are overawed by the feeling that it is all too good for us; the fact is that it is too good for us! Much too good!…We are not ready yet…we [must] come to support not the burden of great suffering, but the much greater impact of limitless joy…” (“The World and the Prophets,” Complete Works Vol. 3)

It’s just easier to be sad; but it’s also more expensive, demanding, vicious, and fraught with mindless busy-work. In my own line of work, I know that it’s easier for a mediocre teacher to waste paper photocopying fill-in-the-blank worksheets, or construct elaborate and byzantine on-line curriculum, or drone on in recited lectures, than it is to actually teach; so too is it easier to self-impose mind-numbing routines and asphyxiating decorum than actually go to the trouble of enjoying ourselves! Despair is at once easier and harder; meanwhile, the yoke of joy is easy, its burden is light.

But joy requires courage, humility, a native curiosity, and at least a dash of daring. That’s apparently too much to ask of many, so we’ve formalized an entire system (including our own Church bureaucracy!) composing endless hours of meetings, reports, paperwork, rote memorization, and regurgitation. We praise the “work ethic” of those languishing long hours at jobs they hate–and worse, don’t matter (how many lawyers and salesmen does this world actually need?). Protest all we like how we detest the tedium, yet still we barely even try to do anything else.

The supremest irony of all then is that such a society will end the world faster than anything else. I was once admonished to give thanks for junk-mail, which keeps the price of stamps as low as it is–as though I shouldn’t be horrified that we’ve rigged our society to be most efficient when it’s most wasteful. We waste, consume, destroy, stress-out, and work ourselves to death at ever more alarming rates. What’s sadder, none of us are actually fooled–we all know deep down there are happier ways we could be spending our finite time on this earth. If the world had ended this last December 21st, we wouldn’t have had to deal with our creeping guilt; the ever-frightening joy would have been kept at bay. But the world didn’t end, so we might as well face up to it–”men are that they might have joy,” so we had better get along with it.

I’ll finish by letting my nerd-flag fly high for this 2013, and quote Q from Star Trek TNG: “It’s not safe out here. It’s wondrous, with treasures to satiate desires both subtle and gross. But it’s not for the timid.”