What is joy?
Is it watching your children run into their school building on a drizzly morning, their backpacks bobbing up and down as they laugh and leap around puddles? There they go, through the doors. What wonders await them.
Is it sled riding with your daughter, the snow running up your pant legs. Hearing her giggle as you crest the big bump near the top of the run on the big hill at nearby King’s Estate? The bottom of the bowl is a crisscross of mud where all the sleds have crushed down the snow into the still-warm earth. “Again! Let’s do it again, daddy!”
Is it a whispered, “I love you” from your dear wife as she turns to walk out into their day? Her scent lingering a moment in the air where she stood, her feel still on your fingers as the door closes.
Observing, as the snow melts under the morning warmth, where crocus and early daffodil fingers have sprung up from the dark loamy earth. Wondering to yourself when you will have the time to clear out last years’ garden debris before they bloom, and how to do to so now without crushing them all underfoot.
Watching slush fall from the evergreens into the pond beneath their limbs, the fish darting around at the excitement of these unknown events.
Are we made for joy, is it a native setting? By default, are we leaking joy from our hearts? Or do we have to purposefully work to train ourselves to nurture, grow, and unleash it? Are we born full of a lifetime measure of joy? Or an unlimited quantity? Or are we merely an empty shell until some internal decision or external action transpires, and only then does joy begin to well up from its source? And what source?
In my life, I have sensed the absence of joy for awhile. I strain under the weight of political news, global pandemics, civil unrest, climate dread — things external and around me, and things within — a search for work, ongoing research, worry for loved ones, the trials of parenting, wearing a middle-aged body, and wondering if I am good enough for any of this.
I do not speak of happiness, mind you. Happiness is having physical things that are important to you; it is having the assurance of one’s meaning and place in life. Dad. Spouse. Friend. Neighbor. A guy on the bus, at the meeting, in the places he belongs. It is that satisfaction at beholding one’s home and stability, of ease and peace knowing the groceries can be paid for, a vacation is planned, and the kids’ clothes will fit and keep them warm. Happiness is an outcome of security.
As Gertie says in the Jim Fergus book, One Thousand White Women,
“ … you don’t have to stop and think about whether or not you’re ‘happy’-which in my opinion is a highly overrated human condition invented by white folks-like whiskey. You don’t have to think about it any more than a bear cub or a pronghorn antelope or a coyote or a damn bird has to think about it. You got a roof over your head? You warm? You got enough food to eat? You got plenty a good water? You got a good man? You got friends? You got somethin’ to do to keep you busy?”
If so, you are happy according to Gertie. Without falsehood, I could tell you I was happy and yet, not break a smile or show any pleasantries at all.
Happiness is for oneself and reflection of one’s family and life.
But joy is an open nozzle, sometimes only trickling and sometimes gushing. You cannot hide joy. You cannot presume to keep it to oneself. It is not for you alone. Joy cannot be contained. It can only spill out and over. It can bring tears, it can bring pensive reflection, it is unto itself a fountain in the public square.
In my dark time, I asked, where is my joy? That’s when the truth of joy struck me, unexpectedly, and nestled once more into my bosom: joy was all around, ready and waiting for my acceptance. I had to look, and ask, and be willing.
I decided to let it in. I could not help but to do so.
And there Joy was, in that second sip of morning coffee, in anticipation of something coming, in the wonder of the world’s everyday events, in awe of the tides of seasons and their fruits. The the memories of friends from long ago and new friends yet to be made.
Joy required no wealth or security. No esteem or degrees. No possessions or claims to status. No stability or ownership. Only a welcome. A look up. A yes.
It came without judgment, or reservation, or suspicion. It settled in and set my soul ablaze.
If happiness is the stability of one’s constant pursuit of life, then joy is the hearth of one’s being. It is a welcoming place for others to sit and linger, to bask in shared warmth and light and safety and presence.
Where happiness is satisfaction for oneself, one’s family, one’s degree of movement or progress in a life, joy is an edifice carved from granite, memorializing the marvels of our lifetime despite our self-awareness amidst it, tall and polished for all to see.
Can there be happiness in every life? Not all are so fortunate, no. But can there be joy? Where children are laughing, yes. Where a butterfly is milking the delicate flower, yes. Where there is a sun setting against the pink and blue haze of the mighty world we live in, yes.
Search for joy. Be ready; you may not find it where or when you think. But when you do, it will be delightful.