Season 4 - Episode 449
Amidst the joy of the holiday season, many dealing with loss or trauma in their own life feel grief. Angela Gorrell, assistant professor of practical theology, has experienced that type of dichotomy. While studying joy at the Yale Center for Faith and Culture, her family suffered a string of tragedies that led to her to question what it means to find joy in the midst of suffering. Her book, The Gravity of Joy: A Story of Being Lost and Found, walks readers through those struggles and what she learned in the process. She takes listeners inside that journey and offers insights on joy in this Baylor Connections.
Derek Smith:Hello, and welcome to Baylor Connections, a conversation series with the people shaping our future. Each week, we go in-depth with Baylor leaders, professors, and more, discussing important topics in higher education, research, and student life. I'm Derek Smith, and our guest today is Reverend Doctor Angela Gorrell, assistant professor of practical theology at Baylor's George W. Truett Theological Seminary with research interests focused on joy and suffering amidst a variety of topics. Her insights into joy stem from a profound dichotomy experience during a challenging period in her own life. Her book, The Gravity of Joy: A Story of Being Lost and Found is a theological memoir about her own experiences as she researched joy while working at the Yale Center for Faith & Culture. She joined the Baylor faculty in 2019, and she's with us today on the program. Angela Gorrell, it's great to have you on the program. Thank you so much for joining us today.
Angela Gorrell:Thanks for having me.
Derek Smith:Well, it's great to have you here and we're going to talk about some topics that impact a lot of people as we delve into your memoir and your research. But I'm curious as we start off today, for someone who focuses on joy, suffering, mental health, social media, among a variety of other topics, what's the last year and a half been like during a pandemic? How's that impacted your work because it seems like there's probably a treasure trove of new angles to explore from an academic standpoint, for sure, in a time like this?
Angela Gorrell:Absolutely. Well, first of all, it's just very, very interesting to have studied joy and specifically joy amid suffering, and then to have your book drop in the midst of a pandemic right? Right in the middle of a [inaudible 00:01:45]. So my book was released in March of 2021, and it was just one year into this pandemic with really no end really in sight. And I remember wondering, "Would my research hold? With everything that I wrote about why joy is possible in the middle of suffering, in the midst of pain in our lives, would it hold?" And I'm grateful to say that I think it does, but it really has meant looking inward in my own life and starting there and saying, "Okay, God, could you continue to reveal to me why this is true and what this looks like for me so that I can talk about this in an honest way in all of these interviews about this book?" Yeah.
Derek Smith:How would you describe the threads that tie your various research interests together?
Angela Gorrell:I study the things that keep people awake at night, so I'm always asking, "Okay, God, what are you doing in the world? How do I join in the work that you're doing?" But then in conjunction with that, I'm asking, "What are the important issues that people really need God to speak into in their life?" So I wrote about social media a few years ago. My book on social media came out in 2019, it's called Always On. And I just realized people really care about social media and they're wondering what does this have to do with my faith and where is God in the social media landscape? And then with this, it was addressing some really important things that are going on in the United States, specifically with relationship to suicide, addiction, and mass incarceration, and really wondering, where is God in the midst of these very difficult things in people's lives? Where is God in the midst of great loss, in the midst of mental distress? So my research is about where is God in the midst of this thing that is really important to people?
Derek Smith:We are visiting with Reverend Doctor Angela Gorrell from Baylor's George W. Truett Theological Seminary. And these are topics you've been studying a while before you came to Baylor in 2019. I know a lot of the genesis of the book came while you were at the Yale Center for Faith and Culture. Areas like this, joy and suffering, how did those become areas of interest to you going back and when did they begin becoming an academic focus for you?
Angela Gorrell:I was looking for work in my last year of PhD studies. I was going to school at Florida Theological Seminary, and I heard about the Theology of Joy and the Good Life project at the Yale Center for Faith and Culture. So honestly, I was just really intrigued by the research. I thought, "It would be incredible to study joy for the next three and a half years. I can't really imagine a better research project." And also visions of the Good Life with contemporary culture. I was just very intrigued by the topics and I wanted to know about them for myself. So I applied for the job at Yale, I got the job at the Yale Center for Faith and Culture, and dove into the joy research. And then eight months into the project, tragedy struck my family. So it was through that, that I realized I was going to have to think about my joy research in light of suffering because of the suffering of my family.
Derek Smith:And as I ask you this question, maybe it's even better to revisit it at the end, but as we delve into some of those experiences you had that I think a lot of people will relate to in different ways in their own lives, how are we defining joy? As we talk about joy, how can we think about that from the framework in which you approach it in the book?
Angela Gorrell:Yeah. I describe joy throughout the book in all different sorts of ways. I think the best way to describe joy is to tell a story about it, which is why my book is filled with stories. But two of my favorite definitions, so like I'm saying, there are several different kinds of definitions in the book, but two of my favorites are, one, joy is the recognition of, and the connection we feel to what is truthful, meaningful, good, beautiful in the world. So it's when we're able to realize things like truth or meaning, and to feel like they have something to do with our life. And when we feel connected to something like that, it brings us joy. The second definition that I really love comes from my friend, Andy Root at Luther Seminary, he says, "Joy is the very being and presence of God ministering to us."
Derek Smith:That's great. That's very good. So we think about that as we dive into your book, now, The Gravity of Joy: A Story of Being Lost and Found. So you saw, obviously, some very personal experiences that you dealt with in your family. Could you take us inside those a little bit? What will readers discover about that experience as you were studying joy at Yale?
Angela Gorrell:Yeah. So here I was at Yale in March of 2016, and for the first nine months of that project, I just read everything that I could get my hands on about joy. I was over the moon about my research position there. And I was supposed to start teaching a class called Life Worth Living in spring of 2017, so about a year into the project. And I was really excited about that as well. And then nine months into working at Yale and one month before I started teaching Life Worth Living, I received a phone call that one of my family members had died by suicide at 30 years old. And that week was hands down the hardest week of ministry in my life and the hardest week of dealing with, up until that point, just profound grief over the loss of someone that I knew because there's just something about suicide that you feel so powerless in the face of it, and you have like a visceral reaction to it. I say in my book that it's like what nightmares are made of. So I was called upon in my family, I think, because I'm pastor, or at least I'm ordained, I was a pastor and a professor of pastoral ministry, to really be present in that whole week in a way that was really difficult for me that I didn't even realize until months later how difficult it had been to be present to all of those moments in the ways that I was. And then two weeks later, my nephew died suddenly at 22 and then a week after my nephew's funeral, my dad died after 12 years of opioid use. So in four weeks, I lost three people I loved and I spoke at all of their funerals and it was my job to study joy.
Derek Smith:Wow. Well, how did you even begin to process that? [inaudible 00:08:48], how did you process that in the midst of really a strange dichotomy in your personal and professional life?
Angela Gorrell:Right. I think the only way that I began to process it was by teaching this class, Life Worth Living. It was a gift to me because I thought, initially, it was going to be my job to guide students and helping them to answer some of the most important questions of our lives. One of them being, what is the place of suffering in a good life and how should we in light of the life and teachings of Jesus respond to suffering? And I realized a few weeks into the course, "Oh, I have to answer these questions for myself in a new way." And I think that that's something that I've learned in this process is that, again and again, these important questions of our lives, we have to answer them throughout our lives as they change and as they shift. But really, it was a year and a half later after my dad's death that I began to really think about joy amid suffering. To be honest, after my dad's death, I believed that our work on joy was shallow and trivial in a world that was suffering. But then I became a volunteer chaplain at a women's prison, and I was assigned the women on suicide watch at the prison. And the majority of the women in my Bible study were in prison for an addiction. And I realized, "Oh my goodness, God is meeting me here in the midst of these women's lives in this room, in this prison, to teach me something about joy amid suffering." So the gravity of joy is about my own faith being lost and found in many respects, and having to be rediscovered and also what these women taught me about joy amid suffering.
Derek Smith:What was the interplay like for you as you thought about joy and suffering of the grief that you yourself were feeling and also the struggles of other people? When you touch on things like mental health and addiction, as you said at the top of the show, there are a lot of people, a lot of families grappling with things like this either because they themselves are suffering from it or someone they love is. So was there an interplay for you as you talked to people about what you were experiencing in your own grief and the factors that were leading to their own struggles?
Angela Gorrell:Absolutely. Another definition of joy that I really love is that Adam Potkay says in his book, The Story of Joy, that joy is an illumination. And then I add to that in my book and I say, "It's the ability to see beyond to something more." And I think when people are in the midst of deep depression, when people are struggling with wondering whether or not their life matters, when people are caught in cycles of poverty, substance abuse, trauma, we want to believe that there's something more than what's currently, like what we can see and feel and touch. Joy has taught me that there is something more and that it's about trusting God. Jürgen Moltmann says that hope is the anticipation of joy. So joy becomes, for me, this end point, this thing that we're postured for that we realize, "Okay, God, you're going to meet me here where I am in the midst of my anxiety, in the midst of my depression, in the midst of my wondering whether or not my life matters and whether people can connect with me anymore, or whether I can connect with other people. You can minister to me and you can find me." So I can experience joy. It's possible for me.
Derek Smith:This is Baylor Connections. We are visiting with Reverend Doctor Angela Gorrell from Baylor's George W. Truett Theological Seminary talking now about her book, The Gravity of Joy: A Story of Being Lost and Found. You mentioned that you felt like as you were studying, you're dealing with this personal and professional dichotomy as you, I think, you described it in the book, you mentioned that parts of it seemed shallow. What aspects were most jarring to you? And then what aspects of studying joy were maybe most impacted in a positive way by you navigating these things during this time?
Angela Gorrell:Yeah. I think that I thought that joy was trivial and shallow because I really saw it as synonymous with happiness. And now I don't. I think from a theological viewpoint that happiness and joy are different. I think that happiness is more of an assessment of our circumstances and the conditions of our lives, like we look at the conditions of our lives and we think, "I'm happy with them." And Miroslav Volf the founder of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture, a theologian at Yale, he says that happiness is more like pleasure. So happiness is a good thing in our lives. It's good to look at the circumstances of our lives and feel good about them and to feel pleasure at times as well. But joy is a more profound emotion than happiness because joy is not tied to the conditions of our lives. That is the gift of joy. Joy can be felt in the midst of really beautiful, good circumstances, exuberant circumstances, exciting times in our life. Joy can also be felt in the midst of pain because it's the being in presence of God ministering to us, like joy can always, always find us. So that was what I realized was that joy is... So realizing that joy was different than happiness was really important. And then also joy is very modifiable in a way that very few emotions are. So I realized there's all these dimensions to joy. There's healing joy, sobering joy, joy as a bright sorrow as I describe it in The Gravity of Joy, there's redemptive, restorative joy. It's the joy of Luke 15, where what's lost has been found, where everything can be redeemed, where things can be recovered. That's also why joy can be such an incredible gift in the midst of mental distress, addiction, suicidal thinking, what's lost can be found including you, including me. So it was in realizing, "Oh, wow, joy has all these various dimensions and because joy is this being in presence of God ministering to us, it's a really special gift of Christianity." So even Alexander Snyman, the priest, he says that joy is the tonality of Christianity, it's how it sounds.
Derek Smith:What do you see the implications of there being so many different dimensions of joy if we, as individuals can internalize that and share it in our own lives with others around us?
Angela Gorrell:Yeah. I think that recognizing that there's a lot of dimensions of joy means that we realize no matter what we're kind of going through in life, that joy can find us in that place. So I think that it helps us be ready for joy, be open for joy in a way that feels like we don't have to betray our grief. That's the real gift, I think, of realizing that there are all these dimensions of joy. When I realized that joy can come, maybe at first as a bright sorrow, that joy can be a sobering, quiet, transformative feeling in my life and it doesn't have to be this exuberant, exciting jumping thing all the time, then I become a little bit more open to it. I let down my walls and I say, "Okay, I don't have to betray my grief by letting joy in. I can both grieve and I can be lamenting things in my life. I can be struggling, I could be in pain, but still open my hands and be ready for joy." And because they can live, sorrow and joy, in close proximity to one another. They can stand next to each other and both can live and remain. So I think that's the gift of realizing that there's all different kinds of joy
Derek Smith:Visiting with Angela Gorrell. And obviously, I think anyone could benefit from the topics in this book, but is there a specific target audience that you have in mind?
Angela Gorrell:I definitely was trying to reach people who had experienced similar things as me and my family. I was hoping that in telling my story that other people would have permission to do the same. I think we have to have permission from people to share the deepest and sometimes those dark things in our lives. So anyone who is struggling with wondering whether or not their life mattered, struggling with addiction, struggling with loving someone who's struggling with mental distress and addiction, this book is for them. It's for anyone who is in pain right now, and who is like, "Hey, where is God in the midst of this pain? Is joy possible for me?" This book is for them.
Derek Smith:Talking to Angela Gorrell. In your own work and scholarship, does the experience of this book, your own experiences and the topics that you examine in them, what avenues does this open for other study for you as you think about where you go with your studies next? What does this make you want to delve into further or what are you delving into further?
Angela Gorrell:It's interesting, I just pitched my next book last Monday to my book agents and we've decided to go with a particular idea around... So in the middle of the pandemic, I feel a lot of people realized they kind of... So at some point in our lives, many of us have a moment where we realize, "Oh my goodness, life is short." So I think the pandemic caused basically all of us to have that moment at the same time in a really interesting way where we went, "Oh, my goodness, life is so short. What am I doing with my life? Who am I? What's next? How do I make it count?" So my next book is about that moment when we have a moment where we ask, "Who am I? Even though I'm 35, 45, 55." When we have a moment where we realize, "Oh my goodness, I don't know if I've been living my life in a way that feels like it matters and it's meaningful. So what do I do about that? And how do I figure out who I am again in the middle of life or after retirement?" So when you have those moments of rich transition, what do you do next? So it's about that and it's about the stories that we live. There's a chapter of The Gravity of Joy that's called Stories to Tell. So this next book is going to be about what stories do we need to let go of that have been passed on to us about who we are? What stories do we need to receive maybe in a deeper way about who we are? What is the larger story that we're living toward and how do we determine those things?
Derek Smith:Well, for people who would like to find your books and learn more about your research and scholarship, where can they go to find The Gravity of Joy and to learn more about the work you do?
Angela Gorrell:You can go to angelagorrell.com to find me and all the work that I do with lectures, retreats, consulting, et cetera. And then my book can be bought anywhere that books are sold Barnes and Noble, Amazon, but also independent bookstores like Fabled here in Waco.
Derek Smith:That's great. Yeah, that's great. Well, as we wind down, I'll ask you then just to kind of summarize again, when you think about this, it's hard to summarize a process this big or a topic this big in a few words, but if people read your book again, you've mentioned this, but what's the one or two big things you really want them to take away in their own life?
Angela Gorrell:One is that joy can always find you. So I invite you to be on the lookout for joy in this Advent season, to be someone who has open hands, who's ready for joy to find them because we often find what we're looking for. And to my friend, Willie James Jennings, also a professor at Yale, he says that joy is a work of resistance against despair. So my other invitation to all the listeners would be to join together in this work of resisting despair by being ready for joy.
Derek Smith:That's great. That's a great way to wind it down. Thank you so much for taking the time to share with us and share your story and for the work you've done on this.
Angela Gorrell:Thank you so much for having me. It's been a delight.
Derek Smith:Reverend Doctor Angela Gorrell, assistant professor of practical theology at Baylor's George W. Truett Theological Seminary, our guest today on Baylor Connections. I'm Derek Smith. Reminder, you can hear this and the programs online at baylor.edu/connections, and you can subscribe to the program on iTunes. Thanks for joining us on Baylor Connections.