Joy: A camera flip away?
It may be a combination of my straight-laced Baptist upbringing, my natural personality, reading too much news, etc. I tend to have a melancholy disposition, and “joyful” is just not one of the adjectives that I or others would use to describe me.
The pandemic (and all that happened along with it) took its toll on many of us in the joy area. Despite what I said about myself above, I do always like the Advent and Christmas season, but 2020 took it out of even me. I remember hearing “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” come on the radio that Christmas. I think I gagged and changed the station.
Nevertheless, every year at this time, a pink candle stubbornly stands tall in the Advent wreath, demanding to be lit on one of those Sundays before Christmas. The hymn “Joy to the World” plays with its high, emphatic opening note, almost as if it knows that it has to startle me out of a jaded funk every year.
I may have found this year’s jump-start in a place whence new knowledge and inspiration obviously come: a viral TikTok trend.
TikTok users are trying a fun little experiment that caught even this typically emotionless person by welling surprise. In the trend, an adult (usually a parent) hands their smartphone to someone else (usually their child) asking them to hold it and record them while they dance to the final chorus of Taylor Swift’s song “Love Story,” the part where it says, “He knelt to the ground and pulled out a ring and said, ‘Marry me, Juliet’…” The children are asked to hold the phone with the screen side away from them under the guise that the parent wants to be able to see themselves dancing in the viewfinder.
What the child doesn’t know, however, is that the parent has secretly changed the camera input to the back camera on the phone, so that, instead of recording the parent dancing, the device is capturing an up-close recording of the child’s reaction to the dancing. Many users have some other device or camera off to the side recording the whole scene. The dancing usually includes getting down on one knee and pretending to pull out a ring and propose.
Do you ever meet someone who seems to have joy that you just don’t understand? It’s that person who, once you learn more about their life and circumstances, you wonder how they’re even vertical, much less joyful. Nevertheless, their pink candle is lit (so to speak), and it’s a big, warm flame.
It may be that they just know which way to point the camera.
No, they’re not always “happy.” They’re not always smiling. That’s not what joy is, despite those preachers who get up in the pulpit and demand that everyone put a smile on their face and “have a little joy.”
Dancing is a thing on TikTok. In these videos, the parents are not dancing with any skill. They’re just being silly. Train the camera on them, and you’ve got something that might garner a few dozen views and two “likes.” Train the camera on the child, who is otherwise not a part of the scene, and you go viral with millions. Apparently, people flock for a chance to witness pure, effusive joy zoomed in and up close.
The apostle Paul must have learned how to flip the camera. In one particularly striking part of 2 Corinthians 11, he details what he has suffered: prison, flogging, shipwreck, sleeplessness, hunger, and thirst (2 Cor. 11:24-27). In his letter to the Philippians, “in chains,” he writes, “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” (Phil. 4:4 NIV).
It’s worth noticing that there is no denial of his circumstances, no looking away from pain and suffering as if they are not there. In these TikTok videos, there’s always another camera set up so that people can see the full scene. The wide view is not what makes the videos great, but the wide view is also crucial to understanding what you’re about to see.
The “full scene” of human life is something of a mess. In these past few years, many of our societal groups and structures have had a feeling of just barely making it. The things to which our gaze may naturally venture are disappointing at best. It turns out the real show is “off-camera,” not centered on us, not in the spotlight.
That’s the Christmas story. Modern pageants have enhanced that which is quite minimal in the biblical text. Matthew and Luke spend one verse each on the actual birth of Jesus. What they spend much more time on is the reaction to the event and how it was experienced and interpreted, particularly by people who thought they had been forgotten in their old age or lowly status.
The Christmas story flips the camera…to places hardly anyone was looking for joy.
Back on TikTok, on the other end of the age spectrum, an 82-year-old great grandmother has something to tell us about joy as well. Her name is Torchy Swinson, and she has more than half a million followers. She shares stories, jokes, and inspirational messages. In a video from July 18, she says that she has “reached the last years of my ‘I’ll be so glad when.’” She says she “wasted so much time on that.” She explains that she is referring to statements we might make throughout life like, “I’ll be so glad when [my children are] out of diapers,” “I’ll be so glad when they start school,” “I’ll be so glad when we can retire.” Then she says, “If I could tell you just one thing: don’t postpone joy.”
Torchy’s profile bio says that she has 20 great grandchildren. My guess is that she has learned not only where to point the camera, but how brief an opportunity you have to see what’s there.
So, even if we have to drag ourselves to that Advent wreath, let’s go there and light all those candles; yes, even the pink one. There’s no use in postponing joy.