The Saving Nature of Joy
Joy can save the world. If we were all joyful, there’d be no hatred, violence, incarceration, collusion, greed, or addiction. We’d all be peaceful, kind, and compassionate.
Think about it. When you’ve felt on top of the world, could you have hurt another person? I don’t think so. Most people, when they’re happy or joyful, feel generous, understanding, supportive, and forgiving. Certainly, our moods can change. If we feel threatened, we can instantly become angry or fearful. We could lash out. In the moment of joy, however, we love everyone.
That may be because joy helps us feel connected to one another and to the universe. Eckhart Tolle talks about “the joy of Being.” He describes it as an “alive sense of peace” that settles upon us when we understand we are truly one with that which is divine, with the essence of life. Indeed, our physical being is a manifestation of life’s eternal essence. To realize this brings us great joy. 
If he’s right and we discover joy when we realize our true nature, then joy cannot fade when our lives become difficult. Death, fire, abuse, divorce, flood, illness, or even torture do not change who we really are, so even in the face of great pain and suffering, we ought to be able to hold onto that peaceful and joyful vitality.
Unfortunately, life is not always so simple. In desperate and despairing moments, we often forget who we are. At such times, our joy can fade. How can we learn to hold onto that realization? When everything is against us, what will remind us of who we really are?
Building a Cathedral
As I was thinking about this, I stood up to gaze out the window of my fifth-floor office. Through the grime on the glass I watched pedestrians make their way into restaurants, a book store, a rent-controlled apartment building. People stood on the street smoking cigarettes. Traffic filled the three lanes. Every fifteen minutes, a bus stopped to gather up those who waited or who ran to catch it.
In about a month, there will be a Greek festival in the neighborhood. I know this because a man with black hair and a beard climbed a yellow ladder to hang a notice on each of the block’s three lampposts. A friend helped him from down below, holding the ladder steady when needed, handing him materials.
I thought of the story of the three bricklayers. When asked what he was doing, the first laborer said he was laying bricks. The second said he was building a wall. Only the third seemed to understand the purpose of his efforts: he was creating a cathedral.
This parable has been used to encourage visionaries, to speak to the underlying value of menial work, and to remind us that all humans are worthy. These are lovely sentiments, and the tale does support such themes. To help build a cathedral is to be part of something sacred. If constructed well, the structure will last far into the future, giving the laborers a bit of immortality. The men were part of something greater than themselves, and the third bricklayer understood this. He knew who he really was. Because of this, he took joy in his work. He took joy in being alive.
On Having a Purpose
As we go about our day, walking down sidewalks, smoking cigarettes, catching buses, how many of us feel joyful? How many of us remember our true nature and understand our value?
For instance, take those men hanging signs. Did they consider the larger purpose behind their task, as the third bricklayer did? As they worked, did they think about the Greek community, the value of festivity, the possibilities of peace that can blossom when people come together? Did they feel connected to all those who would see the poster?
A job like theirs can be tedious. It is so full of repetition: setting up the ladder, climbing to the top, hanging the posters over the lanterns, tying down the corners, stepping back down to the sidewalk, tucking away supplies, folding up the ladder, and setting off to the next lamp to do it again.
Many jobs are grim, dangerous, dirty, or boring. Some work offends a person’s ethics, harms the environment, takes advantage of elders or children. Some people are forced to prostitute themselves, literally or figuratively. In such situations, where is the joy?
As someone blessed with work that offers me the joy of helping others, with a home that is peaceful and comfortable, who am I to offer advice to someone who suffers moment after moment, day after day? How does such a person find the inner space to even wonder who she really is?
Living in the Moment or Pure Thought
I cannot answer that question for anyone else, yet there are things I have done. For instance, as I learned to cope with great loss and desperate fear, I discovered that joy is found by living in the moment, even when the moment is not what I would wish it to be. In a little book filled with Buddhist inspiration, this ability to focus on what exists right now, is spoken of as “pure thought”: “If a man speaks or acts with pure thought, joy will follow him, like a shadow that never leaves him.” 
Buddhist wisdom tells us that, even when our lives are agonizing, we can make them worse – or better – by how we think about them. If we hate what comes our way, if we ruminate on the unfairness of the world, if we try to flee our feelings through addiction or numbness or blaming others, our suffering will linger.
At last week’s sharing circle, I read a poem by Ho Chi Minh who was imprisoned for fourteen months. He opens by saying that although his arms and legs are bound so he cannot move, still he can hear the birds sing, smell spring flowers. “Who can prevent me from enjoying these?” he asks. 
Looking at the Sky
The Vietnamese leader lives in the moment. He focuses on what he can control. In this way, he can take joy in the beauty around him.
As I watched the young men move with steady steps and measured purpose, adorning one lamppost after another, I never once saw them stop to gaze above them at the drifting clouds or pause to feel the breeze touch their cheeks. If they had, might they have appreciated their work that much more?
Of course, I don’t know that they were unhappy. For all I know, they felt strong, important, and connected to some purpose beyond themselves. They went through the motions of their task briskly, efficiently, and carefully. Clearly, they focused enough to be safe. No one fell; nothing broke. Theirs was hardly a day of misery. Yet could it have been more joyful had they stopped to breathe now and then?
Years ago, I met a man who toured the country talking about the sky. He encouraged people to look up, day and night, to learn the shapes of clouds, the brightness of planets rising. No matter how dismal a home a person lives in, or how filthy the street he sleeps on, he can still see the sky. Even when fouled by forest fires or chemical waste, the sky reveals incredible sunrises and sunsets. Even through clouds, the moon will rise, and often we catch the shimmer of its light.
When we look up, when we notice, when we hold still long enough to feel awe at the sliver of a moon, we understand our oneness. We know joy.
When There Is No Sky
Yet some people can’t see the sky. I think of the three women who were held hostage for ten years in a basement or prisoners in solitary confinement. Stephen Sondheim wrote a song about a woman trapped in a department store basement, unable to go outside for years and years. She thinks of all she can remember from her time in the world, such as trees, and leaves, and ponds, and light, and sky. Sometimes, she thinks, she would be willing to die if she could only see the sky one time again.
The point of “Evening Primrose,” the musical for which the song was written, isn’t joy. It’s more about living as one dead or dying but being free. Yet isn’t joy about feeling free no matter where we are? In the end, the woman is turned, with her lover, into a mannequin. The two stand together in the store window, their faces turned toward the sky. You could say she got her wish.
Finding Joy in Stillness
Could she have found joy both in her living and her death? What about the billions of people whose life are harsh and unforgiving? Can we expect that they should feel joy just because the air is sweet and the birds sing?
Pico Iyer speaks to this question in his book about stillness. He starts by explaining that if we can find space and time to be still with our thoughts, to be mindful, we will know happiness. For instance, a study of monks who had meditated for years revealed that these men experienced “a level of happiness that was quite literally off the charts.” Never before had the researchers seen such contentment.  Clearly, the stillness of meditation elicits joy.
The opposite is also true. As Iyer puts it, “getting caught up in the world and expecting to find happiness there [makes] about as much sense as reaching into a fire and hoping not to get burnt.” 
Stillness allows us to separate ourselves from the noise, bustle, money, substances, entertainment, and power we think will make us happy. Not all of us can withdraw to a monastery and meditate for hours every day. We’re busy. Friends, employers, and family make demand on our time. We may feel trapped in bodies that don’t work, in prison cells, in crushing poverty, in closets or bedrooms, in chains. Some of us experience abuse that numbs us until we imagine stillness except by numbing our minds. In this way, we go a bleak nowhere.
Yet Iyer uses the term “nowhere” to refer to a deep quiet that rejuvenates and heals. Nonetheless, he acknowledges, “None of us . . . would want to be in a nowhere we haven’t chosen.”  In Sondheim’s musical, the lovers end up in a nowhere that was not of their own choosing. Stillness can lead not just to bliss, but also to helplessness and unimaginable horrors.
Caring for the Vulnerable and Broken
How do we change the misery so many endure? Not even the wealthy seem content, though money insulates us from many harms. Yet who among the rich can truly see the sky? Who understands joy? Not many.
We need to learn to live in the moment, to be still inside, to know that peaceful vitality that is joy. Who wants to be around people who take their unhappiness out on everyone else? Who wants to live in the battered and polluted planet we have destroyed because we think gold, oil, and money will solve our problems?
If, instead, we can raise children with tenderness, if we can protect them from grievous harm, they will grow up joyful, kind, generous, and productive. When we soothe the broken, heal the miserable, and nurture the vulnerable, everyone is better off.
Saving the World
To find joy, most of us need help from those who have found the way before them. Even if we suffer, we can know joy when we realize who we really are. Stop to look at the sky. Meditate. Even if we are confined, there is freedom within us. In stillness, in that place of nowhere that is the oneness of all things, there is joy.
It matters whether or not we find such joy, for if we do, we are much less likely to harm anyone else. That’s because, in joy, we feel connected. We realize we are one with everything. To hurt another is to hurt ourselves. If we can realize this, if we can find a way to be deeply, fully joyful, the world will be better off.
This is work we can all do, and it can’t wait until our lives are calm or we are wealthy or secure. Pain, loss, anger, shame, uncertainty, and every uncomfortable sensation and feeling will be part of our lives always. We are human, and we are meant to experience a full range of emotions. If we push those feelings away, if we seek only happiness, joy will elude us. Joy comes when we accept the moment as it is, complete with all its ugliness.
That doesn’t mean we can’t try to change our situation or better the world. Anger and compassion can work together to encourage such efforts. Yet if we strive to create change from a place of hatred, we will only perpetrate misery. Out of mindfulness, stillness, and joy come the loving compassion that counteracts hate and violence.
If All We Do Is Lay Bricks
Although I cannot speak for those who experience enormous suffering day after day after day, I have known suffering, I have known tedium, and I have known terror and heart-breaking loss. Nonetheless, even if all I do is lay bricks, I still have value and my work can help change the world. When we take time to look at the sky, even one dark with clouds, the stillness we find there can help us breathe.
We must find time for joy. All of us. And we must spread our joy. When joy is absent, people hurt one another. Life becomes hard and bitter. We gouge the surface of our planet and destroy its life forms. If joy teaches us that we are one with our world and all its creatures, how can we hurt her? How can we harm another person, destroy a forest, extinguish a species?
Learn to live in the moment, to lay bricks with purpose, to pause to watch the clouds no matter how busy you are, and to breathe in peace and breathe out joy. In joy is the salvation of the world.
In faith and fondness,
- Tolle, Ekhart, Stillness Speaks, Novato, CA: New World Library, 2003, 57.
- The Corporation Republic of Hwa Dzan Society, Heart of a Buddha, Taipei, Taiwan: Amitabha Publications, 2001. no page numbers. PDF version http://www.amtbweb.org/data/documents/Heart%20of%20a%20Buddha.2nd.pdf
- Roberts, Elizabeth and Elias Amidon, eds., Earth Prayers From Around the World, San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991, 51. See also Minh, Ho Chi, “Ho Chi Minh: From ‘Prison Diary,'” The Nation, May 6, 1968, https://www.thenation.com/article/ho-chi-minh-prison-diary/, accessed 9/15/18.
- Pico, Iyer, The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere, New York: Simon & Schuster Audio, TED, 2014, Part 1, Chapter 2.
- Ibid Part 1, Chapter 2.
- Ibid Part 1, Chapter 3.
Copyright © 2018 Barbara E. Stevens