Full disclosure: Yes, I realize that my column title is pure plagiarism. But somehow, I don’t think that either historian Friedrich Schiller, who penned the original celebratory poem with that title in 1785, nor illustrious composer Ludwig van Beethoven, who borrowed from a slightly revised version in 1824 for use in the final movement of his Ninth Symphony, would mind. After all, in 1972 “Ode to Joy” was adapted as the European national anthem, befitting for a poem written to address the unity of all mankind. Everybody loves it. Just hearing its strains can put a smile on your face. The melody and words are upbeat and…well…joyous.
For another year, we’ve recently eked past Christmas, billed as the season of joy, with friends and family gathering round to share merriment, good wishes, wondrous gifts, and tasty holiday munchies. Even if your holiday didn’t fit that happy cliché, other sources of seasonal joy abounded. Oohing and aahing at wildly-colored light displays, ogling the decorated town Christmas tree, humming along to carols floating on the December air, and gazing into the ink-black night sky ablaze with stars, maybe one in the East a bit brighter than all the rest as Christmas day approached. Joy bloomed around every corner.
When was the last time your heart was filled to the gills with pure joy? Think back, and revel in the warmth a particular memory brings to you. In my book, that has to be one of the most fabulous feelings. Perhaps it was the birth of your child, reuniting with an old friend, recovery from an illness or accident, finishing your first marathon; spotting a lone, flaming pink flamingo among a flock of ibis; or watching the Lowcountry sun sink over the Atlantic as a military formation of pelicans glides past.
As the pandemic and politics continue to wreak havoc in a world whose healing absolutely requires a focus on positive influences – sustainability, environmental awareness, healthy living, forward-thinking leadership, and respect for our fellow man – lives continue to be lost and hateful behavior often commands center stage. No wonder that despair, depression, pain and pure sorrow are running rampant. Sometimes it may seem easier to give up and embrace the “downs” than to struggle to find an upside.
Amazingly, there is one.
If you’re not familiar with The Prophet, a timeless 1923 classic by poet, artist and philosopher Khalil Gibran, nab a copy and immerse yourself in his wisdom. The book is small and its chapters short and to the point. My favorite is his treatise on joy and sorrow. Here’s a short excerpt:
Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.
And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears.
And how else can it be?
The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.
Think about it. When sorrow roars into your heart, that grief can be all-consuming. Yet if you allow yourself to actually feel that pain, healing can begin. That’s not to imply that you’ll then forget whatever caused the ache. Life usually doesn’t work that way. But the experience of that sorrow will open up space in your heart to feel more deeply, and that includes the sanguine emotions. Joy, for instance!
During my 16-year-old year, my parents divorced, my mom married her high school sweetheart, and we moved to another town. I missed my childhood friends, my swim-team buddies, Sunday afternoons on my aunt and uncle’s farm, and the small-town world I’d known. I was the new girl my junior year in high school. As you may remember, teen-age hormones can make life crazy enough, and the time was a bit tough until new friends took me under their wings.
One incident at that first Christmastime in a brand-new town really sealed those friendships for me. Our doorbell rang on Christmas Eve morning and my mother answered it.
“It’s for you,” she called. “Your friends are here.” Her voice was far from enthusiastic.
On the back steps stood two of my new pals, Anne and Marilyn. One had a tiny ball of fuzzy brown fur with perky black ears and a waggy tail tucked in her arms. Both girls sported
huge grins. Both knew how much I missed Jamie, the curly cur I’d had to leave behind in our family’s move and knew my mom had said a firm “no” to getting another dog. So by golly, they brought me one anyway.
As Mom later reminisced, “Those girls pretty much dared me to say you couldn’t have this puppy.”
Thank goodness she caved, and from the minute I took that pup – soon named Andy – from Marilyn’s arms and my face was covered with wet, milky-breath kisses, I was in love and my heart was nearly bursting with joy.
In a recent National Public Radio episode of “To the Best of Our Knowledge,” host Anne Strainchamps interviewed National Book Critics Circle Award-winning poet Ross Gay. This remarkable writer challenged himself to zero in on one delightful thing each day and to write about it for 30 minutes. He did this for an entire year, and the resulting essays became a New York Times bestseller, The Book of Delights.
If the state of your life and/or that of the world has you down, follow Gay’s lead and build your joy muscles. Maintaining the blues gets tricky when you’re focused on what brings you joy. Actively look for joy. It can lie waiting to be discovered in the simplest situations.
Years ago, an old boyfriend, another couple and I were sipping our way through California’s Napa Valley Wine Country. Between vineyard visits, we took a breather for noonday food at a tiny, out-of-the-way café. Probably used to half-soused diners, our twenty-something waitress joined in our jokey rollicking, served us a lovely, artichoke-centric lunch, and received a generous tip for her attentiveness. We thanked her for her stellar service, and she replied with a heartwarming smile, “It’s truly been a joy and a delight.”
I like to think she meant that. The experience had been happy and memorable for us as well.
By all means, grab those moments whenever or wherever they appear, especially if you’re in an unlikely situation. Pure gifts they are.
And if you want to double or triple the joy, reach out and pass those feelings along. You never know whose spirits might need a lift and you might well be the source of joy for a fellow human being. It doesn’t get much better than that.