A Catholic Monthly Magazine

Joy – Dark Secret Joys

Fr Tom Ryan SM

Part 2 of 3

In contrast to last month’s reflections, some joys can be destructive. There is the perverted form of joy in inflicting suffering on others. Again, there is nothing admirable in taking pleasure in the public humiliation of someone who is innocent or disabled or impaired. 

Yet, to be honest, there’s the latest gossip about the next-door neighbours (‘Have you heard…’) or the misfortunes of people we don’t like (‘couldn’t happen to a nicer guy…’). And there’s that frisson of secret joy at another’s failure, perhaps a person we admire, even a good friend. These ‘joys’ catch us unawares yet, instinctively, can prompt shame. Clearly, we wouldn’t want them showing up on Facebook! Alternatively, they can bring a flash of insight, as in Clive James’ poem. In rejoicing when “the book of my enemy has been remaindered,” he realises that could well happen to him.

Destructive secret joys may not be momentary. They can spring from an habitual disposition (a vice) and reflect a flawed moral character. St Thomas Aquinas argues that envy or inner pleasure at someone’s else distress, or worse, persistent resentment at someone else’s gifts or good fortune always has something wrong about it. It erodes who one is and one’s relationships.

Alternatively, our basic humanity requires an awareness and recognition of the good and the gifts in others. It also entails being affected by, and responsive to their suffering, through compassion, accompanied by the desire to alleviate their distress or suffering. These are the virtues of self-care and compassion.

To illustrate envy’s secret joy, think of the annual termite inspection of your home. “Sorry, but this year we found evidence of termite damage in the skirting boards and underneath the house in the structural beams.” Everything looks fine. The skirting boards show no damage, until the surface is tapped and there is nothing there. The house is standing, but, without repairs, not for long. Behind the appearances lies a different reality.

Termite damage

Similarly, the secret joy felt in deep-seated envy can ‘white ant’ our life and those of others. It eats away silently in a person’s heart. For Shakespeare, it is the “green-eyed monster” that destroys Othello and brings such delight to Iago. It is at work when Judas makes the offer to the chief priest to betray Jesus. Their first reaction is they were “delighted to hear this” and offer him money (Mark 14:11).

As Robert Roberts points out “the terrible evil of facilitating the crucifixion of an innocent man was for them an intense spiritual pleasure.”  While they may not have appreciated precisely who they were killing (the Son of God), what they were doing was “bad enough to make their joy deeply vicious, an evil joy that shows the corruption of their hearts” (Robert C Roberts, Spiritual Emotion: a psychology of Christian virtues. UK: Eerdmans, 2007, p. 118).


To Ponder

Is there anything familiar in what I have read here? Can any one of us throw the first stone? 


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