The Gift of Joy

The smiling man. Copyright, Jeff Gardner 2014

By Jeff Gardner Published on December 24, 2023

It’s Christmastime again, and among all the gifts given and received, the one thing that most people want, at least according to the National Institute of Health, is happiness, joy.

This makes sense since the first gift of the first Christmas was “good news of great joy” (Luke 2:8-13), delivered by the angel of the Lord to the shepherds watching their flocks in the field that night. 

But despite this, many of us during Christmastime (myself included) often feel gloomy, if not downright depressed. Somehow, despite everything we have and hope to receive, the gift of joy and happiness goes missing from our lives this time of year.

Something About Joy

December has often found me working in other parts of the world. After almost tens of years of global work, I’ve noticed something about joy: In some of the poorest places that I have been, despite all the hardships and troubles that people endured, many that I met there were, for the most part, happy. Some of them are even joyful. Why is that? 

As I was thinking about this question this week, I remembered a man I met in December of 2014 while working as a photographer and writer in Accra, Ghana, on the western coast of Africa. 

Photographing in Ghana

The begging man. Copyright Jeff Gardner 2014

An organization of Christian physicians had hired me to help them raise money to build an orthopedic hospital in Ghana. There are so few places where orthopedic surgeries can be performed in Ghana that many thousands who would benefit from surgery (such as following a bad bone break) are forced to have their limbs amputated instead. As a result, it is not uncommon to see men and women, many of them young and otherwise healthy, walking around Ghana with missing arms and legs. Many who undergo amputation lose their social standing and jobs and are forced to beg in the street in order to survive.

One hot December day, (December is summertime in Ghana) around Christmas in 2014, I was taking pictures of people in a large slum in Acra, Ghana, when I noticed a man begging. His lower right leg had been amputated, and I wanted to ask what had happened, get his story and take his picture.

Unfortunately, he spoke a language that I did not know. I ran through the languages that I did speak (about five of them) and fragments of those that I really did not, hoping somehow to connect with him.

As we struggled to communicate in the stifling heat of the day and the oppressive smell from the slum, up stepped a man who offered to help me.

The Smiling Man

He was tall, rail-thin and dressed in rags. On his feet he wore shoes that were mostly holes held together by duct tape. He was the embodiment of poverty and hunger, but wore a smile on his face that was so broad and sincere, that it eclipsed every other thing about him.

The smiling man told me, in French, that the begging man spoke Dangme, one of the languages of northern Ghana. The smiling man went on to say that though he did not speak Dangme, he had a friend who did, and told me to stay put, promising to be right back.

After about 15 minutes, the smiling man returned with his friend who, he informed me, spoke Dangme (like the begging man), but did not speak French or English, but Twi, one of the principal languages of Ghana. I did not speak Twi, but the smiling man did, and he told me that he would translate my questions through his friend, to the begging man.

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Once introductions were made and my request explained, we four — I, the smiling man, his friend and the begging man — carried on a conversation through a series of translations in and out of three languages. For the next half hour, we four talked and laughed as if we had known each other for years instead of mere minutes.

‘It was My Joy’

After I had gotten the man’s story (his leg had been amputated following an automobile accident) and had taken his photograph, I thanked the smiling man and offered him $20 US dollars for his help. With a deep, heartfelt grin that spread even wider across his whole face, he refused the money with a wave of hand saying, “It was my joy to help you.”

His refusal puzzled me, and over the years I have thought a lot about that hot afternoon and the thin, rag-dressed, smiling man. Compared to me, he seemed to have nothing and yet was so joyful, so happy just to help me. Why was that?

I have come to suspect that the answer to my question is that the smiling man knew something that we often forget: The opportunity to be happy and joyful is always with us, regardless of where we are or what we have. His actions and attitude echoed the promise of Scriptures like Proverbs 17:22, which read “A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.”

Joyful at Christmas

This past Sunday while I was at worship our pastor reminded us that being joyful at Christmas is not some option or personal choice, but it is our obligation as Christians. We must, he said, cultivate joy in our lives, regardless of what we do or do not have. I had never heard put that way, but I believe our pastor is right. Unlike other obligations, joy is something that each of us must give to ourselves before we can receive it from someone else. 

In this light, the joy of the smiling man and his refusal of my money makes perfect sense. He did not want anything else because he, in helping me, was already full of happiness and content with joy. 

It is Christmas, and our Lord is now among us. What a blessing, what a celebration! Like the smiling man we, too, now have everything we need to be happy and joyful. Let us be mindful and remember this, with persistence, throughout every day of the coming year.

 

Dr. Jeff Gardner holds an MA in history and a Ph.D. in Communication and Media Studies. For over a decade, he has worked in media, writing and taking photographs for various publications and organizations across North America, Europe, Asia, Africa and the Middle East. His work has been featured in numerous national and international publications and broadcasts. He teaches courses in media, culture and government at Regent University. You can reach him at jeffgardner.online.

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