In Defense of Joy
by J. David
Perhaps you are 57. And, perhaps, you think of such things as helicopter crashes and choking on lettuce. This being the case, you will have taken into account life expectancy and mean amount of grief permitted per individual, and will recognize that, odds are, the worst thing in your life has already happened.
Maybe, too, you have realized that, statistically speaking, each of us will have at least one good year in our lifespan. Though, if I am to proceed with candor, I must express reservations with the idea that this one will be our good year. Instead, it will be another year, some other time, perhaps in another place. In fact, the (perhaps) one-good-year promised to us may never come.
It is a grotesque hope we have become accustomed to—this perhaps—the idea that some moments in time come with a sort of bedazzlement, or at least a sort of palatable progression that deviates from its interaction with what Ross Gay would call “our wilderness,” or rather “the existential sorrow we all might be afflicted with, which is that we, and what we love, will soon be annihilated.”
It is a consuming grief at times—to know that despite your best efforts, eventually everything ever will end: the old woman walking to the corner; begonias in the meadow; your favorite TV show; girls named Hannah.
It has come to my attention, more firmly than ever, that loneliness, too, is a form of anguish. I am telling you this only because I have carried my grief alone today and am not sure any longer what its purpose is; I am telling you that today I am sad, and only slightly because there will be no baseball tonight. But neither will there be strangers flirting across a dancefloor. Nor hugs in the street. Nor people idling beside bars sharing a cigarette.
This morning, I checked the small news outlets still covering Cleveland—for the first time in weeks the body count hadn’t made the front page; not because there had been any lessening, but because we could no-longer sustain such magnitudes of grief.
This was a small blessing, for I am tired today, and my heart is aching. It has but one small pool of sadness lying still, and this is all I have to offer you in the name of grief; which I am told is also a thing having feathers. I am told it wears our faces. That it makes of us strange beasts.
All through today’s duration I considered annihilation, as one would: What if the second wave of this madness overcomes us? What if, a year from now, we are left with a small and dying species? What if when all is said and done, each of us—brave, and not—lived lives of equal magnitude to oblivion? And even then, if every act of kindness was but a small flicker of light in the endless vacuum of nonexistence, were they worth something? Were we worth something? And if not, is living then nothing more than a kind of small desperation? And when we wandered into living, did we know then, that hope too, was a kind of desperation?
I am tempted in these moments toward surrender. But, in truth, I think this form of surrender misses the point. Maybe, all along, the grief was not the problem. In all its overcoming ardor, I think, grief can exist within us in great magnitudes while joy also exists within us. I say this because I think, as Ross Gay does, that grief is not simply an absence of joy. It is a far nobler beast than one comprised entirely of negations. And while I do not believe in this life as an afterthought, neither do I believe in it as the altar upon which we must sacrifice ourselves. Life presents itself as a duplicity; operating like a coin. On one side—joy. On the other—grief. They are inextricably linked. For this reason I am asking you—what if our problem is in fact the opposite? That not an abundance of grief, but a dearth of joy is the issue. I am asking, what would happen should we choose to cultivate the opposites of grief and loneliness?
Grief’s opposite is easily apparent, for it is joy. Yet, the opposite of loneliness perhaps eludes words within the English language. Marina Keegan muses on its definition, saying—
We don’t have a word for the opposite of loneliness, but if we did, I could say that’s what I want in life…It’s not quite love and it’s not quite community; it’s just this feeling that there are people, an abundance of people, who are in this together. Who are on your team. When the check is paid and you stay at the table. When it’s four a.m. and no one goes to bed. That night with the guitar. That night we can’t remember. That time we did, we went, we saw, we laughed, we felt. The hats.
Though I agree with Keegan, that the opposite of loneliness is not community, it is the closest word we have in this language to the idea, and so I will use it as best I can to convey my meaning. The pertinent questions then become: What if the solution to annihilation is community? And what if this becomes our purpose? What if the meaning of life is to cultivate joy within the universe? And what if that joy were to overcome the grief within our lives?
THE ONE GOOD YEAR
If I am to speak of the potential for good years, I must also acknowledge the normalcy of poor ones—some years you will be laid off; some years will contain within them the deaths of multiple of your beloved; and other years your house will burn down. Or maybe, and even worse to those of us more fretful with our existentialism, you will become exhausted by the routines and mundanities of your own life.
For me, what seemed to be the poorest of my years followed my sixth semester in college. I began to develop schizophrenia, split with my long-term partner, and was overcome with depression. I dropped out of college in the midst of this.
Finding myself both unable to sleep and leave bed, I would lay for hours imagining death and viscerally aching with sorrow. Hallucinations and paranoia overcame me. My waking hours were nightmares and my nightmares were nightmares. This lasted for weeks. I questioned every facet of my existential dilemma, finding myself unable to believe in anything concretely. At this time, I had no religion, no goals in life, no personal philosophies to cling to—I was inexorably lost.
Yet, there was no bottoming out, no moment of the true and deepest darkness people speak of. Slowly, and for seemingly no reason apart from serendipity, my life came back to me in ripples. Though unable to point to a dynamic catalyst for this growth, I vividly remember the vehicle behind this transformation—I began keeping a joy journal. Someplace where I marked down everything bringing me joy each day.
I mused on their patterns and connections; considered their implications on myself; and whatever motifs emerged, made central in my life. I became wholly enraptured by the concept and its experience. Once a week I went to museums. I collected typewriters and vinyls; learned to swing dance and play guitar; took up distance running. That year I attended thirty-seven concerts.
In my spare time, I would attempt to read at least two books each week—everything from writing on particle physics to autobiographies and poetry collections. I read everything I could get my hands on—history, philosophy, coming-of-age novels, books on religion, music history. The lab where I interned during past summers gave me a job. Slowly, I worked my way up from washing test-tubes to participating in research.
My life came back to me in ripples as I began to center joy, though deserving of great credit are my recovery groups, therapist, and psychiatrist. With joy as my fulcrum, I began to find balance within my life, waking each day into one I was learning to love.
IN DEFENSE OF JOY
That year at first seemed to be the worst within in my life. I thought this while not knowing how the year would end, but I dare-say at that point I was not happy. Maybe this is because happiness so often is reliant upon circumstance. And as someone who is both bipolar and schizophrenic, the odds are rarely in my favor. Yet, here I am writing this. Because of joy. Because in the dark spaces I chased it. Because I chased it until my life was sore. Until it was sore from dancing cheek to cheek with that yellow grace.
Let me clarify a bit. When speaking of joy, I am speaking not of happiness or pleasure, but rather the true internalization and associated reactions of taking a deep satisfaction in some moment of your existence. Joy, in its purest form is reliant on nothing but are and openness to something other than our perception of our present selves. While similar, it is far from happiness. And thankfully, neither is fully invested in the other’s presence—they exist, with or without each other.
Over the course of many months I learned to balance my grief with joy, and to invest in healing as their healthy simultaneity. My life became survivable, and slowly, my life became something I loved.
Of all the lessons I have come upon in this life, the most fruitful has been to store joy where it is accessible for when it is necessary. Yet, I am not saying joy will alleviate our sorrows, I am not suggesting it to be a balm which overcomes oppressive circumstance. Joy is not the solution to global catastrophe. Nor is it the solution to any host of ailments—bodily, emotional, systemic—it is not our answer. However, joy, like hope and grief, has feathers. Joy, though no stronger than grief, is that which has the power to make our lives survivable. I am saying, should we choose to cultivate community and center a practice of joy within our lives, that no matter where we come from, where we go, or what we do while we’re here, this life becomes a successful endeavor.
J. David is a Ukrainian-American poet and essayist living in Cleveland, Ohio, where they are an MFA candidate in poetry at Cleveland State University. They are the editor-in-chief of Flypaper Lit, art and media editor of BARNHOUSE Journal, and chief poetry critic for the Cleveland Review of Books. Their debut chapbook, Hibernation Highway, was released from Madhouse Press in 2020. A Baldwin House Fellow and member of The Sad Kid’s Superhero Collective, their work has appeared in Salt Hill, Passages North, The Journal, and elsewhere.
Image source: Jessica Russello/Unsplash