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Book Recommendation: Aggressively Happy by Joy Marie Clarkson

March 29th, 2022 | 4 min read

By Jake Meador

Joy has written the book that I wish had existed when I was in college so my college pastor or church pastor could have given it to me and saved us all a lot of time and expense on coffeeshops and lunches. If you’re like me, you can live in your own head a lot and spend a great deal of time trying to think your way to a solution to all your problems. But in many cases, the problem isn’t necessarily intellectual and neither is the solution. What you really need is something more practical that can help guide you toward wise action amidst confusion. That is what Joy’s book does.

Two of the book’s many virtues are worth highlighting in detail, I think.

First, it’s a book I can imagine giving almost anyone in my church or at one of the local coffeeshops I frequent. Hopefully she won’t be offended by the comparison, but there are ways in which Joy’s book reminds me a little of reading Jordan Peterson, though not in the sense of them giving the same advice or having similar styles (they don’t). What I mean is that Peterson is extremely good at offering practical help someone can act on in the next hour as a way to become a healthier, more grounded, centered human being. This makes his work accessible in a way that mine, to be frank, often is not.

Joy’s book does this too. And whereas I thought much of Peterson’s advice in his first book could actually be more than a little dangerous (the second book is far better), I don’t feel the need to attach any qualifiers or warnings for people before giving them Joy’s book. It’s a guide for cultivating and practicing a kind of ordinary, homespun wisdom as one goes about one’s day. Joy, unsurprisingly if you know her, has no ideological axe to grind; she’s simply offering wise counsel in an accessible, pleasing style that I hope will attract many readers.

Second, I think there’s an emerging consensus amongst many younger Christian writers and thinkers I follow that one of the greatest challenges and opportunities in our day is to simply live as a creature amidst a machine age. That’s absolutely the core of both my books, it’s close to the heart of Alan Noble’s books as well, and I think you can also pick up on elements of that critique in Grace Olmstead’s work, Leah Sargeant’s work, Tish Warren’s work, Michael Sacasas’s work, and so on. We’re trying to preserve the possibility of creatureliness amidst a machine age.

The difficulty I have, at least, is that I struggle to put the sort of theorizing I do in my books into something concrete. (Tish and Leah are better at this.) So basically every time I do a podcast I am asked some variant of a question about practical steps I’d like my readers to take if they enjoy my book and agree with much of my critique. And while I’ve gotten better at it, I’m still not sure I’m good at it.

But I am, now, quite certain that Joy is. While her book is very different from the ones I’ve mentioned above, I recognize fellow travelers when I see them and Joy is one. And what makes her book such a gift is that whereas we have many books critiquing the machine age, either via the prophetic jeremiad or a more detached sort of social or technical criticism, what we mostly do not have is wisdom literature: books that help translate critique into concrete, practical steps that anyone can wrap their head around and anyone can put into practice. We certainly need the Isaiah‘s and Amos‘s of the world, but we also need Proverbs and James. Joy has supplied us with that in this book.

So who is this book for? Well, in one sense I think it’s for anyone who desires to live a happy, contented life amidst a painful, declining world. But in another sense I think it is especially valuable for people who spend time reading books like The Benedict Option or some of the evangelical work I cited above or perhaps some Catholic social commentary. They read all these various thinkers and arguments and quickly realize how far apart Christianity and the American mainstream really are. And then they feel a sense of despair, not knowing what to do to bridge that gap but finding that they dislike it immensely. Joy’s book offers a way forward.

One of the points she draws out really well is that we cannot be morose all the time, we cannot follow the news all the time, we cannot be actively addressing some injustice in the world somewhere all the time. So we need ways of occupying ourselves, caring for our bodies, and being in actual relationships with the people around us:

There is a lopsidedness to a life whose only aim is the destruction of evil. Our horror at injustice and suffering gestures to our intuitive sense that life is meant to be good, enjoyed, not lived in desperation. We grieve hunger because people should be filled with good food, not because good food is bad. We weep with those who weep because we wish that someday they might be able to laugh again. To focus on the brokenness and wickedness of the world puts at the center of our moral world not justice, kindness, and truth, but injustice, suffering, and incredulity.

If you want a book that helps direct you to the good food, so to speak, this is an excellent place to look.

Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).