Joy, the Body and Justice

By Emily Murtagh 

The words roll, and encompass so much truth, just in their bare essence. Is it not a gift that these three exist at all? Joy - the purity of calm delight. Our bodies - built as they are, unique as they are, broken as they are. Justice - the unreachable, the ever-strived for, the practical beauty of the idea of living in a world that is fair.

How do these three live together – how do we do justice to our bodies and how do we do justice to the body of another? How do we leave room for the joyous potential of those around us? These are impossible questions, with impossible answers, but it is in the committed, relentless striving for this that we are as human as we can possibly be.

How beautiful is the truth of a person who has been given room to flourish in a way that embodies their best freedoms and possibility, allowed to rest in the knowledge that they are vulnerable yet in relationship they are strong; to be known and to be shown that they are safe there. How deeply we know experiences that are so far from this vision.

Amartya Sen, philosopher and ethicist, talks of the idea of commitment over sympathy or even compassion in pursuit of lofty aims such as these. He sees part of the goal of the ethical life as being to commit ourselves to others until their stories, their triumphs, joys and losses, are as much part of our story as they are of theirs. This seems like one of the purest ways to dissolve alterity -  to live as if another’s capacity for joy and justice is as much your responsibility as it is theirs.

 He differentiates between this and a life of compassion, which is led from an emotional state, or a life of sympathy where the balance of power becomes uneven in the relationship of giving and receiving. Commitment does what it sets out to do, when it is no longer emotionally attractive. It is willing to change and sacrifice its original goals, it hopes to never give up or change its mind.

It is in the microcosm of our own most personal relationships that we learn how to face the “Bigger Issues” of the world around us -  human trafficking, worker exploitation, the refugee crisis. The challenge of demonstrating real commitment to those around us is great and perhaps widening our circle of those we are invested in, unconditionally, is central to this. We make choices as to whose stories we allow ourselves to become entangled in, to the extent they can no longer be distinguished from our own story and we can choose to commit to new relationships of empowerment and mutual dependence. Joy has been described as the emotion that arises in moments of harmony between our greatest purpose and our lived reality and perhaps commitment is very much part of our great purpose.


Joy, the Body, Justice.

Justice like a river, like a never-ending stream

Justice like a body, screaming helpless in a dream


Joy like fruit it blossoms and it tastes like sweet intent;

You’re pouring it so sweetly – I get lost in the intense –


I would have given you shelter, if shelter did not hold all of my mess

I keep giving you half nothing, packaged, sold like it’s my best


Can I do justice to this body and this other body too?

Can I leave room for your joy; the potentiality of you


Did I crumble when I spoke it, like lies could be our food?

Like half-sustainments could be faithful and I’d be loyal to you –


Justice, hold me closer, and just what can I be

If I robbed you of your joy and gave all of it to me?


Justice like a river, there is joy in this old stream

But I damned it and I drank it and it left us so thirsty

Emily Murtagh has a degree in English Literature and World Religions and Theology from Trinity College, Dublin, and has interned with the Scottish Council on Human Bioethics, in Edinburgh. She is passionate about helping people see the world and each other through fresh lenses. Stories, joy and real life hope are all things that drive her. Emily is currently pursuing her masters in Community and Youth Work in Ireland.