Joy as an Option

Surprising revelations for living in turbulent times.

Posted Aug 05, 2020

We’re all living with similar questions about how to live with the daunting challenges of this pandemic:

  • If I contact the virus, will I live?
  • How long will this pandemic go on?
  • How will I survive the loneliness of social isolation?
  • How do I live with the enormity of other immediate crises: climate emergency, desperate migrations, unemployment rates, social unrest, racial injustice?

Native Americans have some helpful and inspiring reflections on these subjects. Several of them have spoken of this time as a “portal.” A portal to what? one might ask. A portal from one period of our planet’s history into a new, unknown, and beckoning future. An exciting time from one perspective, yet one fraught with uncertainties and perils—full of fears.

Here’s another perspective to the portal image: It offers us an invitation to a deeper, more dedicated inner life so we can cultivate the resilience and confidence to live with radical uncertainty.

Along with the image of the portal, some other indigenous and African cultures share a further revelation: They hold the radical perspective that joy is an act of resistance to the social upheaval, breakdown, and oppression sweeping the planet. They remind us that they’ve never stopped singing, dancing, celebrating, and living with joy. Even amidst the direst circumstances. They remind us that when we cultivate a positive, upbeat, and joyful outlook on life, that positive energy is a gift to the common good, a gift to the universe. A gift to ourselves.

Through joy one resists. One overcomes adversity. What a revelation! What a radical idea!

What gives you joy? For me, it’s often the small things — being with my grandsons, a friend’s laughter, listening to and playing music, dramatic cloud effects, the cardinal at the bird feeder. For others, it might be an inspiring poem, a passage in a book, a work of art seen on the internet, dancing with their kids. We all need to find moments of joy throughout the day, especially since many pre-pandemic sources of joy are no longer available.

Those of us living during these cataclysmic times have a choice: Will we let the darkness of depression and despair overwhelm us, or will we live each day with as much equanimity, contentment, and joy as possible? Some might protest that this is unrealistic, but one wise elder declared that cultivating joy is the very medicine that the world needs right now. Think about the world that you want to participate in creating. How we live each day becomes part of a possible new order of things.

Wendell Berry, the novelist, poet, essayist, and environmental activist, said: “Be joyful though you have considered all the facts.” Opening to joy in such difficult times may seem paradoxical, but again, it’s an invitation to live with more lightness of being.

That phrase brings to mind His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, beloved friends who have both lived through unimaginable suffering. Their lightness of being and joy in life are a gift to all who are touched by their presence even remotely.

These reflections should end with the words of the indigenous elder. “While accepting collapse as inevitable and trying to find my place in remediating it, I do my best to be mindful in the moment and often look up at the night sky to thank the stars for keeping things in perspective.”

With blessings and love to all.