My children’s lack of upper body strength brings me great joy. I’ll explain.
One day not long ago, when developing this column, I was stricken with a severe case of writer’s block. I hadn’t technically attempted to write anything yet, so I’m not certain I was inflicted. In that same manner, perhaps I also had tennis elbow and swimmer’s ear? I struggled for inspiration while wallowing in fear, anxiety, anger, doubt, discouragement… and a general lack of joy. Recent realities of our world stirred up these emotions in me. I worried about my future. I worried about my family. I worried about the health and well-being of my friends, neighbors, co-workers, and people I’d never even met. These felt like perfectly appropriate emotions considering the predicaments of the world. And it felt perfectly appropriate to be stuck in a joyless rut.
I cracked a window open in my home office, inviting the outside world to flow through. I could hear a gentle breeze blowing and the pleasant sounds of birds chirping. I also heard some odd, yet curiously delightful commotion coming from the backyard: the sounds of my wife and kids competing in an impromptu pull-up contest on our rickety, old swing set. One by one, the kids tried to outperform their mother (who successfully hammered out several pull-ups in perfect form.) They grunted and squirmed, kicking their legs - desperately searching for an invisible boost that never materialized. Each child failed to overcome their weakening grip and collapsed to the ground in a heap. The contestants began to giggle at themselves and each other. The giggles quickly morphed into a steady chuckle, then to booming laughter. This was a contagious, immersive, hard-to-catch-your-breath belly laugh. One of those laughs you don’t see coming, can’t fully explain how they arrived or predict when they’ll leave. Glee wafted through the air and into my office through the scarcely opened window. Their jubilation pierced through my melancholy, blessing me with a small but undeniable sense of joy.
Joy. Specifically, joy. Joy is not the same thing as satisfaction. Joy is different from contentment. Joy is not amusement, nor peace, nor hope. Joy is not the absense of fear, anger or misery. It’s a unique emotion, difficult to define yet immediately recognizable. Health is fleeting. Safety and comfort are temporary. But joy appears to be accessible by anyone at any time under any adverse condition. Some of the most joyful people in the world are surrounded by war and hunger and devastation — evidence joy is not dependent on circumstance. However, unlike other emotions, sometimes joy requires an invitation. It’s difficult to simply choose to be joyful. But it seems we can choose to allow joy in when it comes knocking. And not only is it OK to accept that joy, it’s necessary to invite it in.
It can seem a bit out of place when we allow ourselves to feel joyful in the midst of chaos or trouble in our world. Sometimes we close the door (or window, as it were) on joy. We don’t accept the gift of joy because it feels like we are supposed to be exclusively wallowing in fear or anger or hopelessness. How can I be joyful when the world is on fire?! Accepting joy can feel like the familiar spiel of the airline flight attendant, instructing passengers to secure their own oxygen masks before helping others with theirs. It feels selfish. But securing our own joy is foundational in helping others achieve theirs. We must accept joy in order to exude joy.
Joy itself is not a direct solution to the world’s problems. It’s not a vaccine. It can’t repair a broken economy. It doesn’t squash racism. But joy is an essential building block to goodness in life. Fear is a powerful driver to help ensure our security and well-being. Anger is necessary fuel to fight against injustice. But some of the most impactful, positive changes in the world can be born from joy. If we reject the gift of joy, we’re left only partially equipped to help see those changes through. We kick and flail about, searching for a boost that doesn’t materialize. Stuck.
We can’t always predict the form joy will take. It’s easy to recognize it in “mountain top” experiences. But sometimes joy can unexpectedly manifest itself in the form of an impromptu pull-up contest. It’s imperative we let it in. Best crack a window.