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Dr. Angela Gorrell on Joy in the Midst of Grief


Guest host Fr. Stuart Wilson-Smith chats with Dr. Angela Gorrell about her new book, “The Gravity of Joy: A Story of Being Lost and Found,” which reflects on finding joy in the midst of suffering.

Dr. Gorrell explains the genesis of her book. “I was hired by Yale to study joy, which is basically a dream job times two… To have your job be researching and investigating joy, I thought, What better job is there? The first few months that I was there I read everything that I could get my hands on about joy. I was soaking up as much knowledge as possible. And then eight months into working on the joy project, my cousin’s husband, Dustin, died by suicide at 30 years old. That week was hands-down the hardest week of my life up until that point. I remember thinking, How is our family going to recover from this? How am I going to work? How am I going to study joy? 

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Not long after, Dr. Gorrell suffered a series of other tragedies. “I was teaching a class called ‘Life Worth Living’ and a couple of weeks later, my nephew died suddenly of an unknown heart condition at 22 years old. I found myself speaking at his funeral, and I had spoken at Dustin’s a couple of weeks before that. And then six days after my nephew’s funeral, I found myself at my dad’s hospital bedside, spending the last five hours of his life with him. After about 12 years of opioid use, his kidneys and liver shut down. So I lost three people that I loved in four weeks. I realized the toll that those four weeks had taken on me and I was like, ‘Oh, now I have to grieve.’ So my job was to study joy, and I found myself just in the midst of just profound, profound grief.”

Fr. Stuart asks Dr. Gorrell if she was able to find joy in the midst of grief. “It took me about a year and a half to start to make sense of joy amid suffering,” She responds. “I became a chaplain at a women’s maximum security prison, working with women on suicide watch. Most of them were in prison for some crime related to drug use. It was with these women, sitting with them week-in and week-out, that I began to think about America’s crisis of despair. Deaths by suicide have been called deaths of despair. I started to think about what was emerging to me is that we have a despair problem in America. I started to wonder, How does joy speak to these women’s lives? How does it speak to my family’s suffering?

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“A lot of doubt had crept in that year and a half prior to meeting these women. Suddenly, I realized my faith and doubt, my family suffering, these women’s suffering, my research, and joy collided in that room. And that’s when I really started to think about it. And I did realize at one point that joy is not dependent on sorrow, but it can accompany sorrow.”

Dr. Gorrell explains what joy is, “Joy is certainly a feeling or an emotion. But that’s just one aspect of joy. There’s also a characteristic of joyfulness that some people have. Some people are just born with brains and life experiences that make them pretty particularly joyful people… But there’s also the act of rejoicing, which is a choice. I tell people, ’You can’t make joy.’ The feeling of joy is a gift from God. I think joy is also the feeling that we get when we’re being ministered to by God. Joy is the very being and presence of God, which is why joy can be felt in the midst of suffering. But we can choose to rejoice, to look for beauty, goodness, truth and meaning in the world and choose to actively rejoice over it… we can choose to be ready for joy. To be postured for joy. To be open to it.”

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“There is redemptive restorative joy, healing joy. There is a groundedness. Joy grounds us. When we feel it we feel it deeply. It can overwhelm us. The gravity of joy also pulls us toward each other because joy is contagious.”

Dr. Gorrell speaks to those who may doubt that God wants joy for them by asking if they believe that God wants them to experience new life. “If you believe that God wants you to experience resurrection, you absolutely are going to be someone who experiences joy. The entire Gospel of Luke is an ode to joy. It begins saying that God will bring great joy for all people, and it ends with women rejoicing at the tomb… We are a resurrection people. God longs for us to be joyful. God hopes for us to be people who see life as full of meaning and imbued with beauty. God longs for us to be people who both embody and pursue goodness in the world, and to be grateful people. God longs for us to be connected, communal people with each other. Because of that we can’t help but to be joyful people.” (Original Air 3-25-21)