The Value of Joy
By Fjothr Odinsdottir Lokakvan
Don’t put off till tomorrow what can be enjoyed today.
― Josh Billings
My basic ethical values were well in place when I became a polytheist, and the various gods and other Powers in my life now haven’t really caused any drastic changes in what I’ve held to be guiding values for “right action.” I have some new vocabulary as result of becoming more familiar with my Norse gods’ historic associations, and I’ve become more certain that my previous values are heading me in the right direction, but my religious conversion didn’t come with a sweeping overhaul of my general approach to life.
Recently I realized that perhaps I was defining “values” a little too narrowly in some respects, because there is something that many of Them have emphasized repeatedly, and that is, essentially, that joy is important and I ought to pay more attention to it.
Not that I’ve ever been opposed to joy; it’s more that since They’ve kept bringing it up, and I’ve seen it come up in other contexts as a thing to pay attention to, it has become something I have thought about more, both for very personal reasons as well as in the context of a bigger picture. The bigger picture is seeing it as a form of resistance against the dominant culture, and a vital part of being resilient to what that culture does to us.
I read a lot of environmental news, and I’m well enough aware of other major problems in the world, so it is a real struggle at times to not feel overwhelmed by how awful things are, to say nothing of understanding that some of those awful things are going to get worse before there is a chance for them to get better, because “we” have to stop emitting so much carbon, destroying so much habitat, etc., etc., before things have a chance to heal. The problems are very large and very upsetting.
On a personal level, I was depressed for several years, and it was nearly impossible during that time to find anything that brought me more than a temporary bit of joy; it was hard to even remember what that feeling was like previously – surely I had felt that once? . . . Maybe not. While the worst of that is gone now, I know I’m not that far from the edge of that pit, and some things make the ground tilt towards it. In addition, I have a bad habit of seeing something bad, or potentially bad, and working it up in my head into something that will be absolutely terribly awful, and then there’s the ground pitching towards the void again.
I am pretty sure this is one of the reasons that, when I’ve been in distress and sought advice for how to handle the situation, the People Upstairs have advised me to focus on things I have in my life right now that bring me joy. It has been a good way to keep away from ground-tilting thoughts, or to pull away from them.
But it hasn’t only come up as advice for how to handle my own issues. Several months ago, I asked for advice on how to help a certain group of land spirits I have responsibilities to; the response was to bring them joy. That was unexpected, and I have only the smallest grasp on what that entails at the moment, but it was another reminder that joy is an important thing.
They heard me singing and they told me to stop
Quit these pretentious things and just punch the clock
— Arcade Fire, Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)
I’ve also found the concept of joy as an important, powerful thing outside of my personal life. From a wide variety of political-related things I’ve read, I’ve started to see it as a sometimes transgressive act. Expressing joy doesn’t really seem to be encouraged, for one (my cultural context is a white American from a basically WASP background). Acting “positive” is, of course, but spontaneous expressions of delight – not so much, though you’re probably okay expressing delight about something among like-minded enthusiasts, or friends. But generally, it really isn’t the mature adult thing to do, is it? Unless you present it just right, dress it up in the right toned-down language, so it shows you know how to present emotions in a socially-acceptable manner. In addition, there’s a nasty strain running through the culture that says if you’re enjoying something, you’re doing something wrong, not working hard enough, or you’re merely getting your earned time away from “real life.” Because real life isn’t supposed to be enjoyable, I guess, unless you earn your pleasure through drudgery or pain first. (Why there is this notion that pleasure must be earned instead of being a birthright is a good question.)
I’ve seen similar things come up from time to time in discussions of pagan/polytheist practices, since they are embedded within this same context. If you write too much about being happy about what’s going on in your spiritual life, you’ll undoubtedly get someone coming along to “helpfully” point out to you that this is hard, and eventually you’ll find out. It isn’t all fun and games you know! With the implied “Why aren’t you suffering or struggling more?” and the messages that if you don’t find the hard painful parts, then you’re not getting deep enough into your practice, you won’t get out of it what you ought to, etc., etc.; the basic message I’ve gotten is that you risk being met with all kinds of skepticism, criticism, and outright scorn if you express happiness without also expressing enough of the right kind of “hard work” and experience of pain.
I am absolutely in favor of people having an understanding that life, work, spiritual practices, relationships, etc., will have their ups and downs, and what those might look like in order to be prepared, but the kindest thing I can say to the people who feel obligated to respond to an expression of joy by squashing it is, “Please shut up. Come back later, in a different context, with your helpful advice about how things can be hard.”
Listen: Joy is life affirming.
Lots of things in life hurt and suck. People know this. It is thoughtless if not cruel to respond to expressions of joy with what amounts to the message, “It is wrong for you to feel that, and to make sure you understand it’s wrong to feel that, I’m going to hurt you for admitting you feel that way.” Everyone must toe the cultural party line, or be brought to heel.
In the face of bureaucratic authority, the expression of joy can be both powerful and subversive, partly because it is so unexpected. It disarms those in power through an absolute refusal to be provoked or humbled, and it provides great inner strength for the struggles that lie ahead.
In addition, the dominant culture, the kyriarchy, all the -isms that keep people down, they tell you/us: “You are wrong for being [that], and you are most definitely wrong for feeling joy or pride in being [that] or doing those stereotype-denying things. By the way, you’ll also get put down for enjoying the things associated with the stereotypes.” And so finding joy in life while being [that], in being alive as you are, defining for yourself who you are and what you enjoy, refutes the dominant culture and its abuses – and make no mistake, it is abusive to tell someone, “You are wrong to feel that way.”
The ability to feel joy-at-living again was one of the first gifts I received after converting, and I find it precious beyond words. I thought I had lost that. Around the time I converted, I had gotten out of the worst depression – I felt real motivation and positivity for my future – but I still had no idea how to find that spark, that particular kind of easy delight-of-being again. Finding small moments of joy now feels so much more important as a result. And where I live now, it is so, so easy – it is so beautiful, and I am so glad to be here, it is almost impossible to look outside and not find delight in what I see; and if I pause for a moment and think about the basic material reality of my life now, yes, there is plenty to be joyful about.
Feeling joy in my life, and being really mindful and aware of it, feels like a prayer of thanks – and sometimes turns into an actual spontaneous, directed, “Thank You for helping me get here.” I appreciate what I have now, immensely, and allowing myself to really feel that as not just a staid appreciation, but delight, happiness, joy feels like the least I can do. It is a thanks for helping me find that ability again, thanks for the aid I received in getting here, getting my life more settled, and just simply thanks – to Who/Whatever – that I am alive, here and now, to experience the beauty of the amazing world around me.
Joy is life affirming.
We are surrounded by so many life-denying forces.
Joy can be an antidote to their poisons and a reminder that there is more to existence than what they offer.
“If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy, don’t hesitate. Give in to it. There are plenty of lives and whole towns destroyed or about to be. We are not wise, and not very often kind. And much can never be redeemed. Still life has some possibility left. Perhaps this is its way of fighting back, that sometimes something happened better than all the riches or power in the world. It could be anything, but very likely you notice it in the instant when love begins. Anyway, that’s often the case. Anyway, whatever it is, don’t be afraid of its plenty. Joy is not made to be a crumb. (Don’t Hesitate)”
― Mary Oliver, Swan: Poems and Prose Poems