Surprised by Surprised by Joy

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This year’s CS Lewis Festival finished in style with a wonderful Lifeboat reading yesterday evening. By the end of an arts festival I’m usually in a puddle on the floor, demanding wine and vowing this will be the absolute last festival I ever programme. Not so with the CS Lewis Festival. The whole thing has been such a treat from start to finish I actually feel like I could go another week, ten days at a pinch. Now, I have to admit that I had the easy role here. It turns out that curating is basically shorthand for doing the fun part of a festival: dreaming up the ideas, writing a bit of eloquent copy and then swanning around getting your photo taken while you enjoy watching people having a nice time at the events you invented. And I have to pause here and take my metaphorical hat off to the good folks at Eastside, (Rachel, Jacqui, Maddie, Sheena, Maurice and co), who deserve the majority of the credit for hauling chairs around and selling tickets, wiring sound systems and dealing with all the tiny, every day disasters which can make a festival feel like you’re running a marathon in wellington boots. However, I think there was also something a little bit miraculous happening at the CS Lewis Festival this year and I’m going to blame this for the fact that I am still buzzing twenty four hours later.

This year I decided to theme our festival around CS Lewis’ autobiography, Surprised by Joy. It’s not that I particularly love this book. It’s not even my favourite of Lewis’ works. There are some really gorgeous descriptions of the landscape around East Belfast in Surprised by Joy, and I appreciate the way he uses the text to address a number of his reasonably controversial theological outlooks, (a surprisingly openminded stance on homosexuality, a rather laisser faire attitude to church attendance and a militant dislike of pipe organs), with a frankness, sometimes absent in his later work. But, if I’m honest I was more drawn to the idea of being surprised by joy than the book itself. The world seems so screwed up right now I found the notion that we could still find ourselves unsettled, in the very best sense, by joy, or goodness, truth, beauty, kindness or anything even remotely positive, seemed incredibly appealing. I wrote Surprised by Joy across all our promotional material and tried to programme events which might allow people to connect with art and ideas in a way which would lift them beyond the everyday plod of a dark and drizzly East Belfast winter. I thought being surprised by joy meant that people might smile a bit more than usual, laugh even, or feel warm and fuzzy inside. I now realise I hadn’t read the book properly.

CS Lewis’ concept of joy is not the shiny, fizzy, quickly fading sensation we now seem to associate with the feeling of joy. His idea of joy is a slow burn of a feeling, perhaps better expressed as contentment or satisfaction: a sense of all things being well both within and without. Lewis is quick to point out that joy is not the same as happiness or pleasure, both of which are very temporal sensations, easily affected by a change in circumstances. “All Joy reminds,” he writes. “It is never a possession, always a desire for something longer ago or further away or still ‘about to be'” I particularly like this idea of joy being rooted into a kind of living nostalgia, and yet also something which  seeks to bring order and rightness to our future being. Perhaps, in Lewis’ terms joy could be seen as a recovery of something -creativity, community, relationship, compassion- which we inherently know to be the right way of being. Such an understanding of joy would as Lewis writes, “ensure that anyone who has experienced it will want it again.”

And so, I’m not particularly tired tonight. I’m enthused about what I’ve experienced over the last five days. I laughed a lot. I saw a lot of other people laughing and smiling and experiencing a wee dose of that fizzy temporal kind of joy, which isn’t a bad thing in and of itself. But I also witnessed an awful lot of the real, slow-burning joy CS Lewis seemed so fond of. I wrote stories with little kids whose imagination has not yet been tempered by reality and I, once again, saw the way this can melt even the most hardened adult head and remind them how it feels to be unconstrained. I listened to some incredible poetry, stories and music and was reminded that though there is no such thing as a right way of ordering a sentence or melody, there is something in every artist bent towards bringing beauty and meaning into the world. It’s both a pleasure and a constant incentive to be surrounded by so many people who are bent in a similar fashion. I sat party to gracious and honest conversations between people who think differently from each other and yet remain committed to dialogue rather than cold shoulders and it felt like an encouragement to keep wrestling with my own uncertainties. Finally, and perhaps most importantly I saw neighbourhood and community blossoming all round me: parents connecting over Pritt sticked masterpieces, people attending events and realising there are other people out there with the same weird, niche interests as them, complete strangers partnering up to dance rounds at the Ceilidh because they understand what it means to practice hospitality, beer and hymn singing in the Harland and Wolff staff workers club, which was so many kinds of odd, it couldn’t have been anything but glorious.

An awful lot of incidents of people being surprised by joy. All sorts of tiny miracles. Or maybe miracles is too strong a word. Because I don’t for a minute think there should be anything strange or startling about community and tolerance and creativity and dialogue. This is the way it’s meant to be all the time. This is how it could be if we had enormous reserves of funds and energy to run festivals 365 days a year OR we just all got over ourselves and didn’t require a once a year excuse to be as strange and marvellous and kind as we actually are underneath our reserve. I think this is probably what CS Lewis was getting at when he tried to define joy. It’s not really surprising at all, but it is definitely addictive.

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