What “Joy to the World” Really Means

Being looked at is our greatest sorrow, while being seen is our greatest joy…          

joy to the world

Photo Credit: slalit via Compfight cc

A few weeks ago a friend of mine took his son to Legoland. Legoland is like a huge funnel, tantalizing kids with everything Lego-y and then spitting them out at the end in a big gift shop. A trip to Legoland will always end in either a purchase or a temper tantrum. It’s not the kid’s fault. It’s just Lego deftly taking advantage of their kid-ness.

So while my friend and his son were purchasing a set of Legos, his son said, “Thank you” to the young woman working the cash register. She told him he was the first person that day to say “Thank you.” She told him she keeps track of who says “please” and “thank you,” and the average over time is 12%.

Twelve percent.                  

Almost nine out of every ten people look at this woman but never see her. And she knows it. I think all of us know it when we’re not being seen.

The Difference Between Being Looked At and Seen

When we post a status to Facebook and fifty people “like” it, we know we’re only being looked at. But when one of those friends calls us up and says, “Hey, let’s grab a cup of coffee and talk about that thing you mentioned on Facebook,” we feel seen.

When our kids are telling us a story and we’re checking emails on the phone or doing dishes or flipping through a magazine, they know they’re only being looked at. But when we get down on our haunches and look them in the eye and get lost in their story, they feel seen.

When my wife tells me about the trouble she had during her day, and I offer a pithy solution that I think will fix everything, she knows she’s only being looked at. But when I take the time to give her more than a drive-by soothing—when I sit in her place of hurt and frustration with her—she feels seen.

Maybe being looked at is our greatest sorrow, while being seen is our greatest joy.

When Joy Happens

My wife stays in close contact with her grandparents—we talk on the phone to them about once a week—and they absolutely delight in our kids. Not surprisingly, my oldest son gets a huge kick out of talking to them and recently, after hanging up the phone, he exclaimed, “We bring so much joy to them! We should visit them again as soon as we can.”

We bring such joy to them.

They see us and they en-joy us and in doing so they make us joyful, and it makes us want to see them, too.

This seeing thing is contagious, isn’t it? When we are really, truly seen—when someone gazes upon us and delights in us and en-joys us—we are filled with the kind of joy that can only overflow. The kind of joy that can no longer simply look at anyone. The kind of joy that wants to see everyone else in return.

When that kind of seeing happens, and when that kind of joy is spawned, everyone had better watch out, because people come to life and souls are resurrected and the world gets redeemed and parties break out because there is something to celebrate.

The Season to Be Seen

Why is the tagline of the Christmas season, “Joy to the world?”

Because it is the time of year in which humanity celebrates being seen. Because in an ancient religious tradition it is believed God showed up in a manger—right here in the mess of this world with us—and put on eyeballs. Not so he could look at us. So he could see us. So enamored of the world  that his greatest joy was to come, to see, to en-joy.

In October, I heard Bob Goff speak. He began by walking out onto the center of the stage, holding his hands above his head, palms open to the crowd, and exclaiming, “It is good to see you!” He then added, “I say that on purpose. I didn’t say it is good to meet you. I said it is good to see you.” During this holiday season, people celebrate a God who decided to take center stage and to proclaim, “It is good to see you!”

Joy to the world, indeed.

Perhaps this holiday season, as we’re standing in the checkout line, we can remember there is no inherent joy in the thing we are purchasing. But there is joy in a tired, over-worked cashier who is finally seen, who is given back the gift of their dignity with an attentive gaze and a few grateful words.

I see you and you matter to me.

I think a world exchanging that kind of gift this month would tremble with a joy that lasts longer than a season.

Question: Which holiday traditions help you to see people? Which ones don’t? You can leave a comment by clicking here.


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Disclaimer: This post is not professional advice. It should be read as you would read a “self-help” book. For professional and customized advice, you should seek the services of a counselor, who can become more intimately familiar with your specific situation. Counselors can be located through your insurance network or through your state psychological association.

Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

18 thoughts on “What “Joy to the World” Really Means

    • I think he only meant that is a over 2000 year tradition…. which is ancient… Not as ancient as other traditions that are 3000 years old, 4000 years old and people are still practicing, but it is an ancient tradition…

      • Yes, it’s a great reminder of the personal hermeneutic we bring to words, phrases, and content. I suppose “ancient” can have a negative connotation if we think of old things as bad, outdated, or irrelevant. But I tend to assume most ancient traditions have survived for millenia because they are in some way good, beautiful, and true. Which makes them incredibly relevant!

  1. It’s not a holiday tradition, but my birthday is a day when I often SEE people. I usually wake up that day with a sense of belonging, purpose and a unique feeling of worth. The special feeling I have makes me want to share it with someone else. It is indeed contagious. Last year I had the privilege of doing exactly that. My whole birthday weekend was dedicated to an outreach. It is a birthday I will never forget.

  2. I think services at church where we’re all participating in worship of our Creator together helps me see people. And at Christmas, even though it’s not about the gifts, watching my siblings and family open their gifts and their eyes light up helps me see them, too. Love this post. Thanks for your thoughtful reflections as always!

  3. I am not sure which traditions help us see people… I guess, any community service, writing personal cards, baking cookies to offer to others. But mostly, I think that we should all be aware of the people working through this season. I mean we get tired only by going to a mall, listening for 2 or 3 hours to the shops’ musics, seeing all the coming and going. The staff stays there so many hours a day, so many days a week and deal with mostly our indifference or grumpiness… (Is this a word?). It’s awful! They are there because they most probably need the job, but it’s also because they are there that we can try to please others and ourselves through the holidays…. Any holiday eve or day, specially those in which you would like to be with your loved ones, I try to thank everyone who is working: at the subway, the bus, the hospitals, the grocery store, the bakery, the people who clean the streets, restaurants, coffee shops… And I walk around with small Holiday gifts: candies, cookies, a piece of Xmas decoration, little cards with happy wishes for the new year and I give them around, and looking into their eyes I thank them for being working those days, so we can have the holidays we wish for…
    But as Linus Van Pelt said in the Xmas special of 1965… why shouldn’t we all be like this every day of the year? : )

    • As a Nurse I really appreciate you and the kindness and joy you give to those of us who serve on the Holidays. It is not always easy being away from our own families but for me it is a privilege to be there for those who cannot be home either because of their medical condition and who are often afraid or in pain. Thank you for “seeing us”

  4. December 20th will be our day when we will ‘see people’ (all people from the slum we work in) our people and friends living in the slum when they will join us in celebration Emmanuel School’s Annual Function where their kids will demonstrate their learning and vocational skills. We are going to ‘see them’ as we prayerfully plan to give them a Christmas Gift of a cardigan to keep them warm through the winter ahead. Our winter temperatures touch just about 10 degrees Celsius. Blessings.

  5. The lyrics from Martina McBride’s “Love’s the Only House” reminds me much of “On Being Human at the Table for Everyone” only I say “everyone is welcomed at my table,” and the specific lyric “…But I’ll come down and get my hands dirty and together we’ll make a stand…” reminds me of being seen. Not only have I heard your story, but I’ll stand with you and enjoy with you, or cry with you or just listen to you. I really see you.
    I find a lot of strength in good lyrics, just as in reading good blogs, and I thought I’d share that specific song because I am reminded of it often and thought some of your readers may enjoy it as well.
    As always, thank you!

  6. The most obvious thing about this time of the year is when someone actually tells me ‘Merry Christmas’ instead of whatever the politically correct phrase of the day is. I feel seen and heard as a Christian and it let’s me know that THEY know what the reason for the season is all about. With that said, “Merry Christmas” everyone! Happy Hannukah!
    It’s not really the words that count, it’s the sentiment behind them.

  7. What great traditions and reflections upon the ways we “see” each other this season and year round! I won’t be able to respond to each comment, but I do just want to say I’m blessed whenever any one of you speaks up and shares the wisdom you have earned through your experiences. Keep it flowing!

  8. Kelly,
    Perhaps this is not what you are intending but this is what came to mind. Many years ago, when I was a stay at home mom I worked part-time in retail. So I was one of those people who worked long hours from Black Friday through days after Christmas. When you were working the floor the least favorite job was the cleaning out the dressing rooms. I was amazed how people could take in x number of items and walk out with a small subset and the remainder were on the floor. So for me it is one of those “Mom never ever rules” or so my daughter would say. You never ever leave clothes in a dressing room. You hang up the clothes and you put them on the rack they have for you to put the items you don’t want or you put them back where you got them. My daughter will now clean up and clean out a dressing room before she will try on the clothes she brought to the fitting room. So it is a small thing but if everyone picks up after themselves it will make it much easier for those people working at the retail stores long hours this holiday season.

    • Jenn, it’s a great story and a beautiful idea. I think the poor dressing room attendants must feel incredibly unseen this time of year. I’m certain it brings joy to some of them to see someone helping them out. Good stuff.

  9. This is my first time posting though I’ve been reading along for awhile now. having a young child reminds me how special this time of year is for children and how many are sadly neglected or abused by their parents and don’t have the chance to let their spirits shine and develop an authentic self. So at this time of year I will always respond to a child who speaks to me on the playground or in the mall and make an effort to really see and cherish their little beings. Christmas is a time of hope and for many children they need someone to notice something in them that they can hold onto and continue to move forward knowing that there are others out there who can really see and love them for who they are.

    • Natalie, this is beautifully lived and beautifully said. “…someone to notice something in them that they can hold onto…” This captures the spirit of the post so well. I’m glad you decided to comment for the first time, and I hope you don’t wait too long to do so again! : )

  10. I recently participated in my church’s Christmas cantata. After the choir is done singing, we go out to the entryway of the church to talk to the people leaving the service. To me, seeing the joy that we brought to one service is extremely important and lets us see the congregation.

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