Last week, I talked about how joy is not just a “nice-to-have” but essential if you are to survive and thrive. Because what I’ve been exploring and experiencing these past few months is about how joy is an incredible tool for resilience.
As I was writing that post, I thought to myself that I would be interested to read and research more about joy (I’ve already been reading about resilience)… and so I’ve been reading The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World based on a week of conversations between none other than the Dalai Lama, and Desmond Tutu, as told by Douglas Abrams - not a bad place to start, right?
Chills, I tell you. Just chills.
I’m not too far into the book yet, but so far it is confirming what I have experienced for myself - that joy is hard to find when you are struggling, but also difficult to embrace even when life is good but we know how much suffering others are enduring. But that it is through weakness and suffering that we can truly embrace joy as ultimately something that comes from within us rather than from outside.
The Archbishop is quoted in the book as saying:
“Discovering more joy does not, I’m sorry to say, save us from the inevitability of hardship and heartbreak. In fact, we may cry more easily, but we will laugh more easily, too. Perhaps we are just more alive. Yet as we discover more joy, we can face suffering in a way that ennobles rather than embitters. We have hardship without becoming hard. We have heartbreak without being broken.”
What, then, is joy, and what gets between us and joy?
First, let me describe an incredible experience I just had with resilience through joy, using my camera, that I want to share with you, and then we’ll get back to this question.
So this past weekend, we were away on a sleepover at our five-year-old Jack’s best friend’s house. They’ve been friends since they were two-years-old in pre-school, but he and his family moved out to the suburbs a few months ago. Per some very cute video messages exchanged between them (via the grown-ups of course), they were both very excited to see each other.
And I was excited too, not just to see them, but because lately, the dynamic in our house as been that our eight-year-old, Liam, just wants to read, and he gets really annoyed that his little brother wants to play with him. And of course, ALL Jack wants to do is play with Liam, and he gets HEARTBROKEN when Liam wants to read. Like crumpling-to-the-ground devastated in that way that only five-year-olds can get.
And I feel for them both because I know how it is when you’re in the middle of a good book and all you want to do is get back to it. (Yes, I do believe I remember that feeling from the distant past back when I used to read purely for pleasure!)
And I know how much Jack adores Liam and how crushing it must feel to lose his attention to a book.
Except that he doesn’t just crumple to the ground in devastation. Actually, his usual reaction is to get mad and to lash out - literally. He gets angry, and it gets physical, and then Liam is crying and wailing about how Jack is a bully, and he wants a new little brother. Or better yet, no little brother.
And of course, trying to explain to Jack that hitting Liam does not make Liam want to play with him more, and in fact has the opposite effect, is totally futile, but we all know that logic has no bearing to a five-year-old.
So, silly me, I thought this weekend sleepover was the perfect situation - Jack would have another playmate, and Liam would be in heaven, left undisturbed to read to his heart’s content.
Except of course, that’s not what happened at all. Liam lost all interest in his book (at one point declaring that he couldn’t read it because he’d forgotten which page he was on). He just wanted to bother the little ones. And be bothered by them. And then complain to me about it.
Much antagonism ensued.
I begged. I pleaded.
“If they’re annoying you so much, why go and spend more time with them? Just walk away! This is your chance! Take your book and find a nice quiet spot and read!”
To no avail.
Finally, my husband, far wiser than me, adopted a different technique and gave Liam funny YouTube baby videos to watch on his phone.
And then Jack ran over and put his arm around Liam to watch them with him, and I could see Liam’s entire body language relax. They put their heads together and laughed together, and because I already had my camera out, I captured the moment.
But here’s the thing - my camera didn’t just help me capture the moment, it helped me see the moment. And feel the moment.
And in that moment, what I realized was that as much as Liam complains, he loves his little brother, not just at a high level, conceptually, but at an actual, visceral, day-to-day level. As much as he complains about him, it was hard for him not to have Jack’s undivided attention, and to have to share him with someone else.
Of course it was.
What my camera helped me see is that as much as he complains about him, if it really came to it, Liam would do anything for his little brother.
As I looked at this photo Sunday night after we got home and everyone was in bed, the song “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother” came to mind.
And that’s when I started to cry, and not just because the song reminds me of high school.
I started to cry because YES MY KIDS DO LOVE EACH OTHER!!!
I know this, intellectually, even in the midst of the worst bickering, but let’s face it, it can be hard to feel it sometimes.
I know you know what I’m talking about.
And it’s so easy, SO EASY, to focus on the negative.
Whether it’s Trump, or a job that is sucking the life out of you, or an ex-husband, or how you’re going to pay the next credit card bill, or health concerns, or worry over aging parents, or how much you weigh, or how stressed out you are, or the state of the world, or poverty, racism, and the environment, or the phone call that went badly, or how you yelled at your kids when you didn’t mean to, or how much they are bickering… bad things are all around us. There have always been bad things, and there always will be. There is no magic wand to wave these things away. And our feelings around them are legitimate.
But good things are there too, whether it’s the sun shining through your window, spring finally breaking through with the last of the snow melting, dark chocolate, a nice cup of coffee, a friend’s newborn baby, the hard-won milestones of your youngest child, an unexpected compliment from a co-worker, a bowl of noodles for lunch, a good song on the radio, or exchanged giggles between your kids… the good things have always been there, and always will be too.
And the joy I feel from a moment like this and a photo like this is NOT just in the giggles, but in the ability to be present with all the emotions - the frustration, the heartbreak, the disappointment, the betrayal, the insecurity, the fear, the hurt, the outrage, the anger as well as the love, the joy, the closeness, the silliness, the happiness.
So back to the original question.
What is joy, and what gets between us and joy?
Well, far be it for me to compete with people like the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu to define what joy is… but everyone is going to have their own definition.
For me, joy comes from the satisfaction I experience when I am connected to all of my feelings, and the feelings of those around me - in other words, when I can be really present and not all up in my head. It’s the joy of a life lived fully.
And what I see that gets between us and joy is, well, it’s a lot of things, but those things tend to boil down to external things that are not how we want them to be, along with our tendency to focus on these things, and how we wish they were different.
See if you can find joy in the having of feelings.
See if you can see the action steps that you can take, and let go of the things you can’t control.
See if you can find joy in being present.
And see if in being present, you can also tap into the joy that is, in fact, all around us along with the bad stuff.
Because yes, the road is long. With many a winding turn. And it is leading us to who knows where.
But we are strong. We are strong enough to carry each other. Because we ain’t heavy, we’re brothers... and sisters.
I’ll be back next week to talk about specific, concrete, simple actions you can take to find the joy that is already in your life without having to deny the things that are causing you to struggle, and without having to create joy out of thin air.
(PS In case you’re wondering, I was trying to figure out why The Hollies’ version of this song was so popular when I was in high school when it was released in 1969 - I am not THAT old! - but apparently, it was re-released in the UK after it was used in a Miller’s Lite ad and was top of the charts for two weeks in September 1988! Thank you, Wikipedia!