Now that I’ve had a few months to absorb all the layers of U2’s new album Songs of Innocence and test its weight upon different stages of day-to-day life, I’ve found new treasures in these songs, and this article will look at one in particular.
But to understand this treasure, we must first make a brief stop at Oxford, England — though not in the present. We’ll need to travel back in time several decades and pay a visit to C.S. Lewis in his rooms on the second floor of Magdalen (pronounced Maudlin) College and get his take on the subject of joy.
C.S. Lewis, the author of The Chronicles of Narnia series and many other beloved books, observed something startling in his autobiography: Joy is different than Happiness or Pleasure.
In fact, Joy (in the sense that Lewis defines it) has more in common with grief. This mysterious Joy stabs us, it pierces our hearts at unexpected moments, and it uses ordinary things from our daily lives to trigger it — perhaps the way the sky looks at a particular moment or a passage in a book that strikes you a certain way or the chord in a song.
Lewis writes this about Joy: “[It is] an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction…before I knew what I desired, the desire itself was gone, the whole glimpse withdrawn, the world turned commonplace again, or only stirred by a longing for the longing that had just ceased” (21).*
Joy stabs us and causes an inconsolable longing to swell in our chests, and it draws our eyes away from tasks at hand to look great distances beyond this world.
It sends us on great quests to find something that we can’t even name or describe. All we know is that we yearn for something grand — even larger than our own lives — and it makes us restless.
This restlessness makes itself known in many ways: maybe it’s what drives us to suddenly switch careers, to go on some trip to the far reaches of the earth, or to start a business or a non-profit in our local community — or maybe nothing so dramatic as that; perhaps it merely manifests itself in the way we’re constantly looking up at the sky when we go outside or in the way we always stop to watch the sunset on our way home from work.
Whatever it is, when Joy pricks our hearts it is a strange, other-worldly ache, something that we want to experience again. We long for the longing.
The music of the Irish band U2 (coincidentally, C.S. Lewis was born in Ireland) is all about this inconsolable longing — and its new release Songs of Innocence is no exception.
One song has been sticking out to me in particular: “Iris (Hold Me Close)” — track five on the album.
It’s about Bono’s mother who passed away unexpectedly when he was 14: “The ache in my heart is so much a part of who I am” — Bono sings.
Grief, of course, diffuses into our lives like that — like white noise behind everything. The sorrow never really leaves.
Lewis compared grief to amputation. Not only is it something you don’t get over, but it’s an absence that now becomes a part of your identity, and that reality shapes the rest of your life. You don’t “get over” it. You transform into something else. You form a new life through adapting and finding strength in other ways that build around the ever-present absence.
Joy, in a similar way, stabs our hearts and points us to some unspecified world, some quest that leads “behind the sunrise” — as a Narnia line says — and we never get over it. We become aware of the Great Something — unnamed and undefined, but still haunting us with longing — and it pierces our hearts like the way the light of a distant star pierces the singer’s heart in “Iris (Hold Me Close).” Joy transforms us as we work and live around it just as we do with grief.
Both stabbings — stabs of joy and wounds of grief — create longing and ache, and the Holy Spirit moves in both experiences to nudge us down that path that leads behind the sunrise. This is certainly where Lewis and U2 would agree: the joy and grief that we experience in this life are used by a resourceful Hand to lead us to something — Someone — bigger than our lives on this earth.
And our hearts won’t stop their restlessness until we find Him.
*Works Cited: Lewis, C. S. (1966-03-23). Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.