When Joy is Elusive


“While many people are spinning toward the holidays singing Christmas carols and going to fun parties, there are a whole bunch of others hanging by a thread.”
Dec_KathyWhile so many people are singing “Joy to the World” this season, happy about the holidays and gearing up for Christmas fun, many others couldn’t dread this season more. This time of year stirs up all kinds of trouble for many people I personally know; a heaviness starts to fill the air right around Thanksgiving and often lasts until New Year’s.

Joy feels elusive. Hope is hard to find. Peace seems like a distant dream.

It’s always a tricky season for me at The Refuge, my faith community, because I like Christmas. I’m not crazy about the commercialism and try to avoid stores at all costs, but I do enjoy this time of year. I love the story of Jesus because of its upside-downness and the wild and wacky ways He entered into the world as God-in-the-flesh, with us. I love the intentional focus and celebrating each week of Advent.

And yes, I can easily sing “Joy to the World” and not have it bug the crap out of me.

At the same time, I deeply respect that it is a time of year where things start to go haywire for many. While many people are spinning toward the holidays singing Christmas carols and going to fun parties, there are a whole bunch of others hanging by a thread.

This monthly column at SheLoves is centered on downward mobility and life in the trenches with real life and real people. I want to honor that these times in the year can be extra hard, extra weird, extra lonely. It doesn’t mean joy isn’t possible, that it can’t break through the darkness. But it does mean that for many, joy may feel really elusive.

Christmas can be a painful reminder that:

We aren’t where we wish we were. We don’t have money, partners, kids, health, security, friends, community, healing, sobriety, you-name-its that we thought we would at this point and that can feel so discouraging.

We feel so alone. Some of us feel lonely in the relationships we are in, while others feel lonely because we don’t have them at all.

We are worn down and worn out. Life takes its toll. Things often don’t go the way we want. Our families are struggling, our kids are exhausting, our jobs are stressful, our churches are unfulfilling, our hearts are tired from loss and change. We really just want to crawl under the covers and re-emerge in January.

Our families are tricky (probably a way too nice word) or nonexistent. For some, family stuff is easy, while for others, the pit in our stomach starts long before we drive up and knock on the door. Often, there’s no home to go to and we are painfully reminded of our orphan-ness or the harsh realities of divorce and single parent-ness.

Life is flying by. Another year has come and gone and here we are, one year older and one less year left to pursue some of our dreams. And then sometimes we wonder about our dreams and if they are even possible.

We are missing it with God somehow. We might not have a church or community that feeds us like before or often we just feel empty in our connection with God. We feel spiritually empty but don’t really know how to fill up anymore.

Hope feels dangerous. This season is supposed to be a time of hope and anticipation, but sometimes hope feels dangerous. Hope makes us vulnerable. Hope means risk. Hope requires letting our guard down, and we don’t want to get hurt again.

Goodness, if you didn’t already feel bad, this list might have really done you in!

However, if you’re in this spot right now, I hope that somehow you feel less alone. You are in good company. You’re not crazy. You’re not faithless. You’re not weak.

I recently heard Brene Brown share here in Denver. Everything she talked about cuts right to the core, and she has a way of getting to the heart of what we are experiencing as humans. My heart was stirred in all kinds of ways, but there was one part that really struck me. Based on her research on shame and wholeheartedness, she discovered that joy is directly correlated to vulnerability.

In other words, the more vulnerable we are, the more joy we ultimately experience.

When we are closed off, self-protecting, hardened, afraid, locked-up, we can’t experience joy. When we allow ourselves to hurt, to feel, to live, joy seeps in.

It makes me think of Psalm 126: 5, which says “Those who sow with tears will reap with shouts of joy.”

Shouts of joy seem like a stretch after the list I just shared, but I want to mention it here for an important reason. Honesty about our feelings, our realities, our lives, our struggles, how-we’re-really-feeling-about-Christmas, is better than hiding it and pretending we are doing better than we are.

In the end, being honest is always better than hiding.
And in the end, it leads to joy.

Joy is not just singing Fa-la-la-la-la-la
Joy is not painted on smiles.
Joy is not pretending we are something we’re not to keep the peace.
Joy is not ignoring the realities of our pain, our stories, our grief.

Joy is somehow about hope.

And as Brene Brown says, “Hope is a function of struggle.”

My hope this season for me, for all of us, is that if we’re struggling this season, we find a way to be honest about it. That we don’t fear it or ignore it or pretend it doesn’t exist, but that we find safe spaces and places to share the truth of our hearts.

And that as we do, joy becomes less and less elusive.

Kathy Escobar
Kathy Escobar co-pastors The Refuge, a Christian community and mission center in North Denver. A trained spiritual director, speaker, and advocate, she also blogs regularly about life and faith at kathyescobar.com and is the author of Faith Shift and Down We Go—Living out the Wild Ways of Jesus. A mom of 5 young adults and teens, she is married to Jose and lives in Arvada, Colorado.
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  • Anne Vyn

    Thanks for encouraging the necessary honesty that leads to hope and joy!

    • thanks for taking time to share, anne. peace and hope.

  • Nicole Joshua

    Wow! Such a timely message. Thank you Kathy.

  • Kathy, I love this for so many reasons. That Psalm is what I’m hanging on to. I learned from Brene that hope is learned, not something we’re born with and we learn it through adversity which somehow is hopeful in itself. (I actually shared this today in my blog post.) And empathy is one of the greatest ways we can usher in healing. You’ve done that here, by reminding us we are not alone, even when we feel that God is silent in our circumstance.

    • thanks for sharing shelly. i just saw that little video on facebook about empathy and the bear. so good. peace.

  • bluecottonmemory

    I feel like I live your reasons daily – not just Christmas. It always seems to be a tight-wire walk – to not fall off. sometimes for me, joy is a choice – not not go down certain roads, to choose different roads. I am learning to choose love, to choose joy! You describe the battle perfectly!

    • that’s a great way to describe it. thanks for taking time to share.

  • Tara Porter-Livesay

    I loved this Kathy – I think those struggling feel more isolated by the supposed JOY JOY JOY all around them. My wonderful Uncle wrote a piece many years ago and I truly love it, so I want to share it with you )it is in green at this link) … http://livesayhaiti.blogspot.com/2013/12/on-advent-hardship-hope-and-waiting.html

    • that is so pretty, those words from the song we know the tune to but not the power of those words. thanks so much for sharing that with me!

  • cjdeboer

    Brilliant, Kathy. This is such a difficult season for so many and you’ve encapsulated that beautifully and with hope – thank you.

  • Mar

    Hope feels dangerous … You nailed it. Fear of looking like a sucker once again by having hope… You are a treasure, Kathy.

    • it’s so scary, opening up again and risking so much. you are not alone. big hugs from here to there…

  • Anne-Marie

    Hi Kathy, thank you! Do you have a few swift tips for being a blessing to the margins as we go through our cities and towns this month? or other thoughts?

    • i’m not very good at swift tips, but i think the #1 thing i keep remembering is to just keep being in relationship, whatever that looks like, so we know the real stories, the real needs, etc. each situation is so different and that’s why friendship matters so much. one of the crappiest parts for some people is having to ask for help from programs this time of year vs. it being offered from friends in relationship. i could ramble and ramble but maybe the best place is to just pass on kindness in any way we can, kind words, looking in the eye, treating workers with love and respect, all the things that seem so lame but really can be a rare gift in a harsh world. the coolest thing ever, too, is when people give me a little extra $ and just say “get this to someone who really needs it” and i can somehow bring a sliver or relief to someone that might not have received it. so if you don’t know someone, there might be someone else who does and those little things go a long way. peace!

      • Anne-Marie

        Thanks Kathy. I’m pretty chatty and relational, but the reminder to give $ to those best in a position to apply to a wounded soul – great thought. Thanks.

  • Kathy, this is so perfect. Thank you for writing it. “Honesty about our feelings, our realities, our lives, our struggles, how-we’re-really-feeling-about-Christmas, is better than hiding it and pretending we are doing better than we are.” This is such truth! And it totally resonates with me. And yet, I have never been more hopeful, and joy has never tasted sweeter.

    • yeah, it’s weird how it works that way. we think it is somehow the other way around, if we are honest then the joy will dissipate, but it somehow opens up the space for it. thanks for sharing!

  • Bev Murrill

    Oh Kathy, I laughed out loud when I got to the bit that said the list might have done us in. But honestly… and you are so honest and I love it… lots of us feel like that enough of the time to make it worth writing that article, cause people need permission to say ‘this just isn’t what I expected/was sold’.

    And yeah… singing falalalalalla doesn’t quite do it for any of us generally.

    I love your call to honesty. It’s only that which will help us all understand what it is we’re facing. I love that you have told us that the more vulnerable we are, the more joy will ultimately be ours. I’ve found it to be so personally, and it’s clear you have too… What a funny conundrum our God has put before us…

    thanks for another fantastic message… x

    • thanks bev, it’s so fun that you read from afar and that our paths crossed here all those years ago….

      • Bev Murrill

        yeah… life is a circle…

  • I appreciate this so much … It’s a hard season for many in our community. This hits home. Thank you, Kathy!

    • thanks dear idelette. love and hope from across the miles.

  • I needed this today, Kathy.
    You’re right (and so is the wonderful Brene), this season is hard, but embracing the tension and struggle and not masking it or glossing it over is actually healing for me.
    I’m working on finding safe places to share with people.
    I’ll be pondering this for a while.

    • brene brown really does nail so much of the human condition. i am glad you are looking for that safe space…

  • Katie Richardson

    I love this so much, Kathy! I thank God that you could put into words feelings and thoughts that I don’t know how to express. AND, that I can still see and live out hope and joy through all my struggles this season. Blessings!

  • Love this post! Thank you, Kathy. Sometimes it’s just encouraging to hear that it’s okay to feel worn out and worked over.

    • worn out and worked over, yep, that describes so much. thanks for reading.

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  • pastordt

    Amen, Kathy. Beautifully written and so helpful. We’re offering a ‘blue Christmas’ service on Sunday night for exactly these reasons. A safe space to be quiet, light a candle, read responsively, pray together and allow any grief we carry to be with us and then, released to God’s care. Thanks for this.

    • thanks diana, i’d love to hear how it goes and what you all do ours was last night & oh goodness, it was so lovely!

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