Nonfiction

Why Joy?

Against all else...

By Adrienne Ross Scanlan

Because when you’re listening to Darth Vader’s theme on Pandora while doomscrolling the California wildfires and the trees burned to ash across millions of acres, and the Australian wildfires and the billions of kangaroos and wallabies and koalas and other animals burned alive, and the thousands no millions no billions of pieces of microplastics in the oceans, and the blood on the streets, and George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor, and too many more whose names you don’t know, why should joy matter?

Because as Rabbi Alan Lew definitively states, “And when we speak of joy here we are not speaking of fun. Joy is a deep release of the soul, and it includes death and pain.”

 

Because when you’re a girl raised to never wrinkle her taffeta skirt, never dirty

her white anklets, never muss her braided brown hair, and one day you’re a girl running on a hillock, her arms outstretched to sunlight, her mouth open to fast streaming air, her young legs kicking up dirt, you’ll never remember what happened before or after that moment, but you’ll never forget how you ran into a wide, open world with joy.

 

Because when your daughter was four she ran laughing and laughing and laughing along the edge of a Florida motel’s parking lot pool, her arms flapping in excitement, her short legs leaping feet first into cold water, her little hands squeezing your shoulders as you pulled her across sun-slick water, and you’d have forgotten the tang of chlorine, the asphalt steaming in heat, that long-ago afternoon were it not for the joy.

 

Because during the Covid pandemic, and on your weekly shopping trip, while being careful to stay six feet from strangers and friends, even then sunlight blazes through the food coop’s window and spreads a golden cloak on peaches, plums, strawberries, raspberries, even the humble yet crimson gala apples shining and reminding you of a world so close, so far away.

 

Because when your best friend from high school learns she has stage 4 lung cancer just as her kids are (finally) grown, and she’s in the final year of her PhD program and preparing to teach in Europe, and her life has become Zoom calls with colleagues, friends, and lovers as madras scarves sparkle atop her bald head and silver bracelets tinkle on her thin wrists, then the joy left is dying at home, amid a son and daughter about to take their own journeys into the world, alongside lovers and friends, morphine and marijuana, books and blessings for a life well lived.

 

But when watching the videos of the January 6, 2021 riot and sedition at the Capitol that were broadcast during Trump’s second impeachment trial, which nonetheless resulted in an acquittal, what is there to feel but grief, and rage, and dread?

 

But you can live without joy for many, many, many years, and survive each day hard and dull as iron, each anger dry and brittle as coal, each fear cold and vast as the universe.

 

But some people have no choice but to survive each day hard and dull as iron, each anger dry and brittle as coal, each fear cold and vast as the universe.

 

Because just as St. Thomas Aquinas wrote “One opposite is known through the other, as darkness through light,” so there is no understanding hate without love, or fear without curiosity, or sorrow without joy.

 

Because for no reason the music shifts, and Pandora plays Artie Shaw’s “Begin the Beguine,” and there it is, whether you want it or not, whether you deserve it or not, joy as necessary and ordinary as oxygen.

 

Because as W.S. Merwin wrote “only sadness lingers / to hear us out / joy disappears / to wait for us it may be / where we least expect it.”

 

Because you’ve learned that gratitude is a backward glance at near-disaster, and happiness is the sweet today, but joy illuminates the world to come.

 

Because while Emma Goldman did not say, “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be in your revolution,” she did say, “I want freedom, the right to self-expression, everybody’s right to beautiful, radiant things,” which sounds like joy.

 

Because you don’t want to recreate the past while repairing the present in the name of protecting the future.

 

Because psychologists say that joy brings a freedom of movement and mind, where an openness to new ideas, new behaviors, and new attitudes “broaden and build” our life-saving repertoire of skills and experiences.

 

Because a masked and socially distanced stroll to the neighborhood’s Free Little Libraries gifts you Azar Nafisi’s The Republic of Imagination, Richard Power’s The Overstory, Shonda Rhimes Year of Yes, and your hands fill with the joys of books yet to be read, each its own undiscovered country.

 

Because in a hungry world, the generosity of a hot pepper squirrel-repellent suet block in a Kwanzan cherry tree outside your dining room window brings joy to juncos and Stellar’s jays, robins and Pacific wrens, and even you, binoculars in hand.

 

Because when C.S. Lewis writes “Joy is the serious business of heaven,” we still go about our day tasting that coconut-sweet Almond Joy, scenting our bodies with Joy perfume, listening to the Ode to Joy while driving with the window down during our joyrides, and reading The Joy of Sex, The Joy of Baking, The Joy of Vegan Baking, while knowing we feel and crave and need joy here on Earth in our all-too-human bodies.

 

Because if elephants click tusks, flap ears, rumble, tumble, and spin when reunited with family members, and rats, cats, and primates (that’s us) make “joy jumps” to play, and the signs of play are understood across species, then maybe joy is a part of everyone’s life?

 

Because wherever you journey, regardless of the streets you walk or the languages you hear, you’ll see a broad smile and an uplifted chin and know joy is lighting a stranger’s face.

 

Because you’re alive, and that’s why joy.

February 2022
Adrienne Ross Scanlan headshot_NoDate_edited.jpg
Adrienne Ross
Scanlan
United States

I wrote ‘Why Joy?’ while engaged in teeth gnashing over my (and seemingly everyone’s) cynicism and despair of the last several years. A deep dive into Google Scholar and personal experience showed the importance of joy, but just what was joy, anyway? More than happiness but not ecstasy, never only sensation but not wholly spiritual, joy is a necessary trickster that’s inspired me to write a series of essays on emotions heralded by the psychology movement, including gratitude (another trickster), curiosity, courage, and patience.”

Adrienne Ross Scanlan is a freelance developmental editor and author of Turning Homeward–Restoring Hope and Nature in the Urban Wild (2017 Washington State Book Award Finalist). Her writing has appeared in City Creatures, Bluestem, The Fourth River, Hevria, and other publications.

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