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The Value of Joy

Skunk cabbage

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.

— Michael Edwards, “To remain in prison for the rest of my life is the greatest honor you could give me: the story of Sister Megan Rice

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

12 Comments »

  1. Then there’s Beethoven’s Ode to Joy–from a composer too deaf to hear what he was composing as time went on. He felt the vibrations of the music, though.
    This is a great essay!

    The last awful depression before I was dx’d as bipolar (and then got more correct medication) made me felt as if I were possessed by something evil–much like the man possessed with demons in one of the gospels, which were cast out by Jesus. I looked at what I’d been through already, and could only see deeper, longer, and more frequently/closer together depressions in front of me, and wondered why I should even try to live, if that’s what my future was. I expect you’ve been there. I’m also as aware as you are that I could easily slide back into depression again, which is the strongest reason I have for keeping on my meds. While others are able to stave off chronic depression via diet, exercise, and meditation, I am not.

    With proper medication (after three years of trying, the combo I have now has been good for me for about 11 years now), i climbed out of that place, with some stumbles. However, for me, joy seemed to herald a hypomania. When I’d had them before, coming out of a deep depression, it felt like a reward for enduring the depression. Now, I was told that, in spite of my perception, that the hypomania preceded depression. I’m still not sure I believe that.

    For me, a hypomania either gives me energy for chores I hate, or I get heightened sensory input. A real joy in nature for a few hours, instead of just fleetingly as I notice one thing. Once I realize it’s a hypomania, it goes away. THAT is one heck of a bummer, since “true” hypomanias last at least four days. Four days, I should be so lucky!

    However, I do find joy here and there, and while of shorter duration, no less valid. Most of it comes from nature, some from exquisite food or water (I can taste water differences), something beautiful to see, my dog licking my face (not as often as it used to be), music heard, and you-too? passages in books. Wit gives me delight, which is near to joy.

    I’ve known all my life that I fit few molds, so being told I should not be joyful by some who may not have any themselves, in whatever context, is something I see as unfortunate for those poor creatures who believe that way.

    If things can be hard, as we’re told, then things can be easy, too–maybe not overlapping, but I might laugh in the face of someone who said everything is too hard to allow laughter. I might also recommend they seek professional help.

    You said:
    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.”

    Yes! Wonderful.

    and:
    it is abusive to tell someone, “You are wrong to feel that way.”
    Certainly about joy and happiness.

    and:
    Joy can be an antidote to their poisons and a reminder that there is more to existence than what they offer.

    What many of us need to remember.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. One of my favorite books is Moby Dick, and one of my favorite quotes from Moby Dick is this: “That mortal man who hath more of joy than sorrow in him, that mortal man cannot be true — not true, or undeveloped.” Why does this quote appeal to me? Probably just because I come from New England and the Puritan grimness of it is in my bone marrow. But the gods like to suggest other possibilities, other ways of being true. It’s hard to surrender to joy and just let it be real. It takes a certain boldness to embrace it instead of adding caveats to it. Thanks for this reminder!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Thanks for this beautiful reminder about the need for joy. When people ask ‘what can I do? All the problems seem so big and I don’t know how to change any of it.’ I ask them about the joy in their life. It is the most beautiful, natural, life affirming (yes yes yes!) things we can do to resist.

    It’s not always easy. I have also dealt with severe depression from a lifetime of poverty and trauma and a very sensitive spirit (Feel All The Things!!). I’m also a recovering Very Serious Person. There was a time when I would not allow joy in my life because it was a distraction from all the work – the very very important work – that needed doing. Or so I thought. It took a lot of rewiring and a huge shift in my perspective to allow space for joy and it has made me a much more effective activist and practitioner, and I get fewer thumps upside the head from my Gods. 🙂

    Joy is a part of our power, it is inherently available to us, and we must reclaim it.

    Liked by 4 people

  4. I am early seventy, have some severe health issues, need a walker to walk, losing sight gradually, can’t drive any more and rarely leave my own property. I sounds pretty grim and it could be grim. But I laugh a lot and not by accident.

    I live fairly isolated out in the desert on a dead end five mile highway with little traffic. I only go to town once a week to shop and hire someone to drive me. My only long trips are a two hundred and forty mile bus trip to the VA hospital for medical appointment.

    So what about giggles? I put out severe pounds of bird seed every day. I get sometimes a hundred birds at once and rarely do not have local birds around. There are rodent condominiums under my desert bushes so they are interesting to watch. awhile the local predators eat well on my land and I have see paw prints for local mountain lions. It adds a certain level of excitement to my short trip with walker ad flash light to my Sanctuary knowing I might to be at the top of the food chain all the time.

    I also have a cat and feed him only less than a table spoon at a time of moist food. It guarantees that I don’t sit in front of my computer all day long without having useful exercise.This means I have to get up often to feed him, or to let him outside, or when I nap, as he usually naps in bed. I may sometime pet him for five or ten minutes at a time.

    I pay attention to the various plants that nature puts on my land. I note when they are doing exceptionally well and when they are hurting or even dying. Life and death is always operating side by side in the desert. I note the new plants and the old ones that disappear sometimes for good.

    The there are my books my DVD movies the internet and the magazine that I produce and search out new people to interview in the United States and in various other parts of the world that I do all the time year my year.

    There is my meditation in my specially built sanctuary that I had ever expected to ever have, my ceremonies and sometimes drumming. I always have a very busy day ad o top of it occasionally have business to tend to in my shop/home when occasional new tourist walks in.

    On my trips to the VA hospital, even with my limited walking, I check out a couple of book stores, try to walk a couple of miles, a treat myself to at least one ethnic meal at an restaurant. That is how I make a tiring log bus trip into a bit of a adventure.

    Will Rogers, a Cherokee cowboy comedian, once said. “People are just about as happy as they allow themselves to be.”

    In the movie “Mame” the main character uses all of her experiences to the max, poverty, being a widow, being rich. She said ” Life is a banquet, and some poor fools are starving themselves!”

    One finds one’s philosophy where one can. By the way I have lived below poverty and just above poverty all my life and I am also bipolar. So I have had to learn to find happiness by my own learning and struggle. But the thing is, it is still possible.

    Liked by 5 people

    • I am very inspired by your examples of cultivating joy in what could be a very different response to your circumstances. You have reminded me of the power that I have to do the same. I also live in the desert, in Tucson, and sometimes let despair get the better of me. I have only to look around see the world anew, to find humor and meaning in the richness of daily life. Thank you, Christopher, for a reminder to open my eyes and my heart!

      Like

      • I don’t believe in making a situation worse, call it damage control. Then making things good happen helps such as feeding as with the birds, or spoiling my cat, or my once a week movie night. Same with my VA trip including two book stores and a restaurant meal to make it a bit of a adventure, rather than just a chore.

        Liked by 1 person

    • When I have a longish local trip for an appointment, I try to get to places I enjoy on the way back. I try not to do just one thing on a drive–leftover from the days when I had just a bicycle in the eastern edge of LA County. If I was going uphill or downhill, I was going to go to as many places as I needed to justify the effort. These days, it’s an attempt not to waste gas or pollute more than I can avoid.

      I think you are doing it right. Don’t make something chorelike if you don’t have to!

      Like

  5. It occurred to me today that we need joy (and humor) to get us through the hard parts. Those poor things who frown on joy in the midst of awful may never understand.

    Like

  6. “Expressing joy doesn’t really seem to be encouraged…Acting “positive” is, of course, but spontaneous expressions of delight – not so much…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.)”

    YES. Guilt over not working hard enough, and the idea that joy must always be earned before one can allow oneself to “indulge,” is one of many insidious ways the toxic Puritan work ethic maintains its chokehold. This is why joy – genuine joy, not just “positivity” (and thank you, Fjothr, for making that critical and oft-overlooked distinction) – can be such an important a form of resistance to the dominant culture. Thank you for this beautiful, inspiring piece!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks 🙂 But I can’t take full credit for that bit about obligatory positivity – I brought up some of this stuff on Tumblr a couple weeks ago, to make sure it wasn’t just me seeing this anti-joy thing, and one of my friends brought that particular thing up. There’s so much connected with this, and then there’s also those messages out there about how it’s important to follow your bliss, and the way to be successful and happy is to go for your dreams, and all that motivational-speaker/author stuff – augh. It’s complicated and way beyond what I have the background in to pull together a more comprehensive thesis.

      Liked by 1 person

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