A little background: For several years, I have been part of a small cohort of clergy women who meet regularly online and in person. One of the things we do together is write on a prompt each month and share our writings with one another. Often they are quite raw for public consumption, but I kind of liked this one and thought it deserved to see the light of day.
Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss describes a nation of people who never express emotion with words or facial expressions. Instead, they demonstrate tone and mood with complex combinations of hand signals. To outsiders, the apparent lack of expression is off-putting and confusing, but to those who know the language in full – words and signs – emotional texture is much clearer. A frown and a tilted head communicate something, but what is the something? Is it displeasure? Confusion? Careful listening? A certain sharpness of the voice could mean impatience, anger, or merely that the speaker is tired or distracted. We are left to our own devices to interpret what another’s body language is saying, and often even the speaker is unconscious of their own expression and not fully aware of what they are feeling. In the book, a language of intentional hand signals that indicate tone force a self-awareness and articulation of emotion that non-codified body language does not.
In reading the book, I was most captured by the ways that these signals allowed them to express complicated combinations of emotions. Uncertain hopeful approval, for example, or skeptical hurt reticence. I found myself wishing that we had a way of prefacing our speech with an indication of its full emotional texture. I imagine I would spend much of my time signaling things like caring but tense and tired or loving frustrated impatience. It also strikes me that I want a more nuanced way of expressing joy: more words to explain what I mean when I say or feel “joy.”
The word “joy” itself is so overburdened for me with obligation to be and appear joyful as part of my faith and vocation that I’m not sure I really understand what joy is as an emotion. It always seems like too much and not enough to mean what I really want it to mean.
When I walk down the street in Cincinnati, looking at the architecture, laughing at my dog’s almost youthful enthusiasm, greeting friends at every corner, taking in the energy of my still new-ish home and experiencing gladness and integration in all my parts, I can say joy, but I want deeply satisfied amused gratitude.
When I enter our church social hall for a spaghetti supper organized by a youth raising money for science supplies for the 6th grade class that will follow him in school, and one of his friends runs up and throws his arms around me saying, “You’re just so huggable!” and I realize that is not something anyone has ever said or thought about me before, I could say joy, but what I feel is proud amazed awkward connectedness.
When I celebrate the resurrection with my congregation of eclectic, risk-taking people, and from the volume you would swear that Jesus has appeared right there in the room,
and I realize that even for the ones who don’t believe in the physical resurrection the concept of resurrection is real because they need it and know they need it so badly, and I get to be their pastor. I could say joy, but the words I need are more – are honored astounded bordering on disbelief gladness and maybe even, yes, I think maybe even, joy.