joy n. a feeling of great pleasure and happiness
The word joy is inevitably being said more these days as it is the holiday season. “Joy to the world” yadda yadda yadda. I was thinking about joy today while eating lunch. I must have heard it on some Target commercial or perhaps on a sign somewhere. In my mind, joy has a more profound meaning than just “great pleasure.” I feel like I often feel happiness or, more often contentment, but joy seems somehow more pure and untainted. I think we all have moments of happiness in our lives, but our moments of joy are far, far fewer and yet more crystalized in our memories.
I think the OED may have fallen short in defining this word so broadly. I associate joy with childhood. It is happiness that knows no cynicism – pleasure in its purest form. When we are children, we find joy in simple things – like climbing trees or being tickled. The idyllic childhood has you feeling this happiness in an unfettered, unspoiled way. The longer your span of enjoying this joy – or untainted happiness – the happier your childhood. When we are young, we haven’t experienced a lot of evil yet – hopefully. We are naive. We aren’t looking around the corner for the catch or the ghost that spoils it all. It’s a lot like the way a child runs – with complete abandon – because they don’t know to expect fatigue or pain yet. The moment is singular and completely in the present.
When we grow older, we collect the moments when our joy was abbreviated, either by the course of nature or by other people. We become cynical, hardened, expecting our happiness to be short lived or false. We are far likelier to experience contentment – joy’s smug, adult counterpart. Contentment is what we settle for when we are adults because joy is so fleeting and hard to attain intentionally. In this day and age childhood has been expanded far into the twenties, but I don’t think that childhood joy endures. It morphs into a strange hipster irony – almost a reflection of joy – that mocks its existence because it’s easier to be cool and impress people than to get to the unattainable joy.
There are moments in my adulthood when I have experienced joy like I used to as a child. It was not on the day my son was born. Watching him fly out of my body into the arms of my doctor while my husband held my left leg and stared in horror is not what I would describe as joyous. It was a wonderful moment in some ways, but there was too much fear and surprise involved to call it joy. I most often find joy in music…and I’m not talking Beethoven or a Puccini opera…although those would work. I find joy in just listening to all sorts of music and just being there, in the moment…or sometimes singing in the car while Graham bops around. It could be Katy Perry or Metallica, there’s just something about music that brings on a moment of joy for me.
Today marks the passing of a great musician, Ravi Shankar, who I became familiar with when I was 19 years old. My father was very sick from radiation treatment for his brain tumor and I had a job working in a factory soldering circuit boards. I was supposed to be a freshman at Providence College but had to stay back a semester because my father’s health was so precarious, as was our financial situation. I used to go to the public library after work and check out CDs from the basement music department. I had heard sitar and raag in the Beatles music I sometimes listened to so one day I checked out a Ravi Shankar CD. I brought it home and listened to it over and over. There was something very relaxing and quietly joyful in the strings, something I really, really needed during that difficult time.
My father’s tumor was in the occipital lobe of his brain and he had lost a great deal of his eye sight when they removed the tumor and could no longer read books – which was one of the ways I am convinced that my father found joy. I remember sitting in our small living room listening to my CD on a set of headphones when my father asked to hear what I was listening to. So I played him the Ravi Shankar music that I was so fond of. I like to think that that moment was one of joy for my father – just existing in the music the way he used to escape in his books. We played it many times after that and it became our habit to listen to music in the same way we used to share books. There was something about the sound of the sitar that healed both of our pain. It was like listening to audible peace. The memory brings me joy whenever I hear those strings.
R.I.P Ravi Shankar