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More on Joy

By Billy | March 25, 2012

I am part of the generation of consolation prize kids. When I ran cross country in elementary school, I came in 32nd place in my first race. There were 32 people participating. I was literally last to finish, and by a long shot at that. But! I got something for it. A ribbon, a trophy, whatever it was, I do remember getting something for my accomplishment. I went home with a cocktail of feelings: shame, pride, discouragment, resolve, triumph, disappointment. Nobody mentioned at all, ever again, that I was literally the worst cross country runner in the race; I never faced this fact as a child. I revelled, unaware of what I wasn’t learning, in my mediocrity — with participant ribbon in hand. I hadn’t lost because I’d tried! As I write, I see a direct parallel to the modern mode of dying; sterile, unrealistic, decietful. My parents and teachers had told me, like doctors stretching statistics, that I was OK, or going to be OK, because my immediate feelings were prioritized far ahead of my long-term development. People die and people suck at stuff. Bam. There it is. Why do we waltz around these truths as if ignoring them will make them disappear?

I told a high schooler yesterday that I have my first “grown up job.” I acknowledge that the term is oppressive to the huge majority of people on the planet who don’t engage in such activities, and who actually are “grown ups,” but such a job, as constructed in my hermeneutic, involves things like having to bring work home sometimes, going to meetings, having long term projects, and having some semblance of expectations for the future. This girl asked me if I considered myself a “grown up.” I quickly reminded her that I said I had a “grown up job,” and that I had specifically not said I am a “grown up.” I think I will participate in the spectrum of growing up for my entire life, making perhaps the biggest stride during the eternity that it takes for me to exhale my last breath. That said, there are things I have done in my life that, when compared to earlier stages, I can look at and say, “wow, I have grown (up) quite a bit since then.” I have grown up, I am not *a* grown up.

Before I had grown up, I didn’t know that I was already dead in the future. I didn’t know that I was the worst at things. I didn’t know how to lose, or be sad, or win, or be happy, or fall in love, or let it go.

Before I had grown up, I didn’t know how to be sad. I don’t think I’d ever practiced as a child, so it didn’t matter how old I was, I just wasn’t growing up in this region of my life. When something would get to me, it was as if I had to *do* (!!!) something about it. As if how could this pain exist if nobody knows that it’s there?! as if how can I make sense or do anything about it if it’s just neurons exploding in different ways than normal? as if there was some end goal or resolution to feeling bad. I would try to ignore it, or rationalize it away, or both, or I’d need it “expressed.” Poems, screaming at clouds, engage in desructive behavior, or feel rather insane for however long the sadness lasted. While growing up, I realized that there’s no end goal in being sad, outside of being sad.

Why do we feel sad? why do we hurt? because… sometimes bad things happen or things hurt us. It’s not actually the start of something, but the end of something. When you experience some physical ailment, the pain is usually your body saying to get out of the situation — once you’ve done that, there’s no other thing left to do but heal and eventually stop feeling the pain. The hurt is a reminder to take things slow, but it is also a testament to the fact that the blow has been dealt and it’s already getting better. Sure, you can take a painkiller to remove your sensitivity to the pain, but it’s still there. This is like sadness. It is the result, not the cause still waiting for a reponse.

I’ve known that for years. Since I wrapped my mind around that little nuisance of a fact, I lived a dramatically better, but still gut wrenchingly dissatisfied life. Happy and satisfied are different, mind you; I have been quite pleased with the direction I’ve been driving my life for the past few years, but there was always a hole. Always something missing.

In France I had this notion that happiness, or more specifically, Joy, might function quite the same way as sadness. Joy is not the source of good feelings, but rather the response of good stimuli. I hadn’t ever noticed how thoroughly I wanted to hold on to joy; to grasp it, to savor it, to keep it. In successfully letting sadness exist in my life, I simply had to acknowledge the true cycle of suffering and it’s extinguishment. Winter, spring, summer, fall, winter… Pain comes, pain hurts, pain is gone, pain is forgotten. Sometimes it’s frustrating how much effort we put into suffering through something, because when it’s gone, it’s so far gone that if feels like all the effort we spent being hurt was wasting time. It wasn’t, but it doesn’t matter either way.

Joy has a life cycle, too. It comes, like the sun from behind clouds on a day when you really shouldn’t wear that sun dress, but it’s finally beautiful enough for you to technically get away with it. That sun comes out, and acknowledges your faith in her, and you are the first one who is ready for spring — all the other people not hopeful enough to be daring; they’re missing out. That joy, that moment… is worth the discomfort when the sun goes behind the clouds again. Huh, now it doesn’t seem too bad out, and remember how great that sun was just then?

Joy comes and goes. It is a dragonfly who comes and sits motionless on the tip of your oar for just a moment, long enough for you to realize you’ve stopped breathing, and then flies away and leaves you alone in your canoe. You can’t keep that dragonfly. You can’t dissolve those clouds. And honestly, it wouldn’t be the same if you did. The reason you stopped breathing was exactly the same reason that you want to keep it in your pocket. But don’t! Everything will lose its magic.

Joy’s lifecycle is exactly what makes it so powerful. You’re not supposed to feel it for every second of every day. If you were, you’d look for more of it, and eventually you’d get all strung out on it. There’s nothing you should do about it except savor it and let it go. I actually don’t know what the difference is between what I’m writing now, and what I’ve written all the time about buddha-nature, or Lao Tzu, or Stoicism, or just general common sense about enjoying the little things, but this, this is different.
This isn’t just non-attachment in the sense that I’ve understood it for years, this is something new. This is… ugh. This is non-attachment in the exact same sense that I’ve understood it for years, but it just went a level deeper.

Joy has a life cycle, pain has a lifecycle. Let them come and let them go.
That’s all I got right now.

And a story!
Hui Tzu came to visit Chuang Tzu and offer his condolences, as Lao Tzu’s wife had recently died. Hui Tzu found Chuang Tzu sitting on the ground with his legs sprawled out, banging on a tub and singing.
“You lived with her, she brought up your children, and you grew old together,” said Hui Tzu. “It should be enough that you don’t weep at her funeral, but playfully singing like this is going too far.”
“You’re wrong,” said Chuang Tzu, “When she first died, do you think I didn’t grieve like anyone else? But I looked back to her beginning and the time before she was born. Not only the time before she was born, but the time before she had a body. Not only the time before she had a body, but the time before she had a spirit. In the midst of the jumble of wonder and mystery a change took plance and she had a spirit. Another change and she had a body, another change and she was born. Now there’s been another change and she’s dead. It’s just like the progression of the four seasons, spring, summer, fall, winter.”
“Now she’s going to lie down peacefully in a vast room. If I were to follow after her bawling and sobbing, it would show that I don’t understand anything about fate. So I stopped.”

I think my favorite part of this is that Chuang Tzu behaves so very humanly at first. Is that not inspiring? How human of us to grieve over the loss of things we don’t actually possess. How human of us to rage against things we cannot change. How human of us to push pain away and cling to joy. How human of us to fail at it.

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