Perhaps it is the buds on the trees, the shoots from the earth, or the thump of tender heels on the street, walking for the first time, but I’ve been ruminating on the emotional depth of “breaking through and breaking free.”
What is this emotion – might it be called joy?
Poet David Whyte, who polishes a few tarnished words in his collection Consolations describes joy as “a meeting place of deep intentionality and of self-forgetting.”
Joy is a meeting place, of deep intentionality and of self forgetting, the bodily alchemy of what lies inside us in communion with what formerly seemed outside, but is now neither, but become a living frontier, a voice speaking between us and the world: dance, laughter, affection, skin touching skin, singing in the car, music in the kitchen, the quiet irreplaceable and companionable presence of a daughter; the sheer intoxicating beauty of the world inhabited as an edge between what we previously thought was us and what we thought was other than us.
From David Whyte’s Consolations
Joy is certainly a daughter.
I watched just this morning my own daughter ran off across the patio, bare-bottomed as the day she was born, as I call her back and try to change her diaper. In her little rebellion, joy is released into the world and enters my heart.
Joy is a throwing-off and a breaking-free of conforming forces. It is an easement of weight. We fling ourselves open-armed upwards and outwards like flowers.
As we run naked on patios, so we also run wild in streets.
Like that tear-clear moment in the tender, sharp memoir of David Wojnarowicz when, in an otherwise staid, repressed existence as an openly gay artist in 1980s’ New York, Wojnarowicz seizes pure joy:1
Some nights we’d walk seven or eight hundred blocks practically the whole island of Manhattan crisscrossing east and west north and south each on opposite sides of the streets picking up every wino bottle we found and throwing it ten feet into the air so the crash exploded a couple of inches away from the other’s feet on nights that called for it every pane of glass in every phone-booth from here to south street would dissolve in a shower of light. We slept good after a night of this in some abandoned car, boiler room rooftop, or lonely drag queen’s palace.
From “Self-Portrait in Twenty-Three Rounds”
The breaking of glass, the rebellion of self, the resistance to things – I underlined vigorously and wrote Joy! Joy! Joy! in the pale margin.
Wojnarowicz’s individual self-sustaining act reminds me of Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster – a study of individual response to catastrophic events like September 11 and Hurricane Katrina. Events beyond human control that destroyed traditional systems and let in light for growth of something new.
What entered in this space, Solnit found, was something cohesive, active, rebellious, agnostic, and above all, compassionate.
The image of the selfish, panicky, or regressively savage human being in times of disaster has little truth to it. In the wake of an earthquake, a bombing, or a major storm, most people are altruistic, urgently engaged in caring for themselves and those around them, strangers and neighbors as well as friends and loved ones. […] We don’t even have a language for this emotion, in which the wonderful comes wrapped in the terrible, joy in sorrow, courage in fear.
From Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell
Although she suggests the emotion is beyond words, Solnit selects the word “joy.” What word better sums up the love, energy, action, compassion, and brotherhood?
Whyte, too, imagines joy a meeting of complex, oppositional forces.
If joy is a deep form of love, it is also the raw engagement with the passing seasonality of existence, the fleeting presence of those we love understood as a gift, going in and out of our lives, faces, voices, memory, aromas of the first spring day or a wood fire in winter, the last breath of a dying parent as they create a rare, raw, beautiful frontier between loving presence and a new and blossoming absence.
From David Whyte’s Consolations
I submit joy as an amalgam emotion, composed of parts that are less than their whole.
In 2015, two friends and Nobel Laureates, the Most Reverend Archbishop Desmond Tutu and His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama hugged, laughed, connected as long-time friends in Dharamshala, India, the home of the exiled Lama.
They also perched themselves next to the issue of joy. Ruminating, gently turning it around, and over in their minds until a robust picture of joy based on eight pillars of human nature emerged.
‘For every event in life,’ the Dalai Lama said, ‘there are many different angles. When you look at the same event from a wider perspective, your sense of worry and anxiety reduces, and you have greater joy.’ The Dalai Lama had discussed the importance of a wider perspective when he was telling us about how he was able to see the calamity of his losing his country as an opportunity. It was jaw-dropping to hear him ‘reframe more positively’ the last half century of exile. He had been able to see not only what he had lost but also what he had gained: wider contact and new relationships, less formality and more freedom to discover the world and learn from others. He had concluded, ‘So therefore, if you look from one angle, you feel, Oh, how bad, how sad. But if you look from another angle at that same tragedy, that same event, you see that it gives me new opportunities.’
From Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama’s The Book of Joy
Along with perspective, the two spiritual thought leaders proposed tenets of humility, laughter, gratitude and poignantly, self-forgiving.
’Now I don’t pretend that comes easily, but we do have a nobility of spirit. We’ve spoken of Nelson Mandela as an amazing icon of forgiveness,’ the Archbishop said, ‘but you and you and you and you have the potential to be instruments of incredible compassion and forgiveness. We cannot say of anyone at all that they are totally unable to forgive.’
I mention self-forgiveness because it relates to Whyte’s idea of joy being self-forgetting. I think it’s more than that — in fact, it is self-forgiving and, thus, self-expanding.
Expanding is key. It is in expansion that we show kindness, run in the streets, and shirk off conformity.2
It is in the expanding that we turn happiness into joy.
It is in the expanding that we create art.
“There’s no one way to create,” says Yorkshire collage artist Mark Hearld in his absolutely wonderful Raucous Invention: The Joy of Making, an illustrated memoir.
“There are no rules, and that’s the rule.” Whatever is ultimately created, Hearld reminds us, the creative process is jumbled and anti-directional.3
Collages can begin in many different ways, there’s no one way to create – there are no rules, and that’s the rule. You’ve got to suspend disbelief and keep going, find your groove. That’s very much like making an image, because until the marks and the gestures begin to connect, they all seem unrelated, gauche, inarticulate.
From Mark Hearld’s Racuous Invention
To exist in joy, to create in that feeling of joy, you might need to throw something off.
You might need to fling something up in the air.
You might need to run, spiritually, emotionally, and literally.
However you find it, may your day, your season, and your life include actions that inculcate the love, compassion, anger, and pure, pure rebellion of joy.