What "Joy to the World" Really Means

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.

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In his debut novel, Kelly weaves a page-turning, plot-twisting tale that explores the spiritual depths of identity and relationships, amidst themes of healing, grace, faith, forgiveness, and freedom.

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About Kelly

Dr. Kelly Flanagan is a psychologist, author, consultant, and speaker who enjoys walking with people through the three essentials of a truly satisfying life: worthiness, belonging, and purpose. His blog writings have been featured in Reader’s Digest, The Huffington Post, The 5 Love Languages, and the TODAY Show. Kelly is the author of Loveable and True Companions.