Friday, December 14, 2012

The enemy of joy

     Maybe it's because it's the Christmas season or the end of another year, but I've been thinking a lot about the concept of joy: what it is, how we know we're experiencing it, where it comes from, and how we can get more of it. I've experienced fleeting happiness, I've been giddy with delight, I've laughed-out-loud.  But Joy with a capital J? I associate that with religious experiences, the birth of a child, or an exquisite experience in nature.  Joy is deep and heady; it's serious business to be joyful.

In Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, author Brene Brown, PhD, describes joyfulness as "probably the most difficult emotion to really feel.  Why? Because when we lost the ability or willingness to be vulnerable, joy becomes something we approach with deep foreboding."

That statement floored me.  For most of my adult life I have had an uneasy relationship with joy.  An example: when my husband first told me he loved me--at a subway station in Times Square--I remember feeling a woosh in my whole body.  I couldn't stop smiling, even after we parted ways to go to our respective offices.  I positively vibrated with joyfulness and it must have showed because a young man approached and started talking to me as we were waiting for the Walk sign to light up.  It had to be because of my smile--my default expression is usually one of distraction or mild annoyance, and neither are exactly inducement for flirtation. 

But I can place a pushpin right on the moment when my joy turned to fear.  Not an overt fear of what it meant to find the person you planned to marry, but the more subconscious kind, the dangerous subterfuge that tricks you into thinking that the laws of the universe dictate that joyfulness must always be followed by sorrow.  I became obsessed with my health, imagining all the ways I might die young, right at a time when I had found someone who loved me.  Like in a Julia Roberts movie, I would be stricken by Cancer and die young.  Love would become my enemy.

Ms. Brown would call this "rehearsing tragedy."  It may sound like something only neurotic, Woody Allen-types would practice, but according to Brown it's actually a common technique used to arm ourselves against our own vulnerability.  

"Softening into the joyful moments of our lives requires vulnerability," Brown writes, "When we spend our lives (knowingly or unknowingly) pushing away vulnerability, we can't hold space open for the uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure of joy."

It is easy to see why we're uneasy with joy. Everyone likes to blame the media for society's woes, but I would agree with Ms. Brown that if not directly responsible for our insecurity, media certainly aggravates it.  Today I had the radio tuned to the news and heard the awful story about the school shooting in Newtown, CT.  Even after I had heard the account in as much detail as was known, I continued to listen throughout the day for updates.  I heard the same sound bytes over and over, the increasing number of dead, the predictably frantic response of the parents, the fact that the children all knew what a "lockdown" meant, which was heartbreaking in and of itself. The talking heads argued over whether or not it was the appropriate time to discuss gun control and I listened to a criminologist who described the type of deviant who would commit such a sick and desperate act.

Finally I had to turn the radio off.  Not because I didn't care but just to save my sanity.  Although I don't have any children of my own, I can still empathize with the pain of the parents who have just lost a child, and I could also imagine the fear that the families whose children were spared must be feeling as their veneer of safety living in a sleepy New England town is torn off with such ferocity. 

We are confronted by these tragedies all too often.  But I'm learning that dwelling on them for too long and worrying constantly about when the next shoe will drop won't make me or my loved ones any safer.  Such constant dread will only rob us of our human birth right to experience undiluted, uncompromising joy.