The prospect of possessing what one desires
(a feeling of great pleasure and happiness)
The more I think about the word “joy”, the more unsure I am that I know what it means. A lot of people talk about autistic joy, which I think I understand intuitively, but I’m not quite sure. I’ve heard people complain that they don’t have any joy in their lives, and I’ve also had people question whether I had any joy in my life. I’ve heard couples, as well as parents and their children, debate whether or not they have joy. I have many memories as a child of people telling me to go “do something”, because, I assume, they felt that what I was doing was not sufficiently joyful. Perhaps it’s not enough to feel joy, but in addition we need to display an expression of the emotion, and to encourage others to experience joy the way we do. Sometimes I feel the need to explain, or defend, or justify the joy I have.
It feels reasonable to assert that only I can say whether or not I have joy, and yet I’ve often had the sense that others want to determine this for me. And I can’t deny that I’ve cast plenty of judgment myself. I’ve observed other people - people whom I do not know well enough to have any kind of opinion on - and I have thought things like, “They seem unhappy” or “they must be frustrated with their lives,” or some other aspersion that implies a lack of joy. I wonder if questioning another person’s joy somehow makes us feel better about our own level of joyfulness.
A lot of my memories that objectively seem joyful involve drinking a lot of alcohol. Things that come to mind immediately include tasting wine at vineyards in Sonoma Valley, drinking fancy martinis in a secret bar in New York City, going to dinner parties or happy hours with groups of friends, offering wine with insights about where it came from and why I like it so much, going to concerts of my favorite bands with friends (which always involved alcohol pre-concert, during concert, and on special occasions post-concert), having dinner with paired wines at an amazing restaurant, proceeded by cocktails and followed up with a cordial. So many of the things that I thought of us as fun and joyful when I drank no longer seem appealing at all now that I don’t drink. Did I ever really like those activities or did I just like the drinking?
I used to go to performances quite frequently - modern dance, classical music, theater. There are many things about performances that I do not like - the times that they occur (too late for me), the ordeal of parking, the self consciousness of dressing up, the crowds of beautiful people mingling. But I do love modern dance, I love classical music, and I generally enjoy the theater. I also really enjoyed getting a glass of wine before the performance started, and I remember very well my top priority being to stand quickly and rush to the bar as soon as the lights came up for intermission, knowing that within minutes a line unbearably long would form and I may not have time to secure another drink before the performance resumed. My intent focus on paying ten dollars for a mediocre glass of wine in a plastic cup makes me wonder, was it the performance that I enjoyed or was it the alcohol? I suppose it could have been both.
When I think about the things that I enjoy the most consistently and enduringly, they often don’t involve destinations, activities, or other people. A long walk or jog by myself before the sun rises, when the birds are loud and nobody is around. A solitary cross country ski in the dark, my layers of clothing and the cold creating a kind of bubble that I travel in, illuminated by my headlamp, and undisturbed by human presence. Reading a novel on the couch, in an otherwise empty house, getting sucked into the beauty of the language until my eyes close and I fall asleep, waking an hour later to continue reading, undisturbed, with no other agenda for the day. Or, I have to admit, vacuuming the house; watching the little pieces of dirt and dust disappear, hearing the satisfying sound of barely visible debris getting sucked into the plastic tube, seeing things come back into order as I put shoes and coats in the closet and put away everything blocking the vacuum cleaner’s path. It gives me a feeling of great pleasure and happiness, which is how at least one dictionary defines joy.
People often ask me, toward the end of the week, “Do you have any exciting plans for the weekend?” I think what they might be asking is, “Are you going to do anything joyful this weekend?” Whenever I hear that question, I have to pause, and think, and contemplate what to say. If I know the person well, and trust them, I will most likely say, “No, I don’t have any exciting plans for the weekend.” If I don’t feel comfortable enough to say that, I’ll probably say something like, “I don’t know! I need to check with my wife.” It is rare for me to have plans that other people would think of as exciting. When I hear the kinds of things that other people do on the weekend, they sound like things that I would consider tests of endurance: highly unpleasant and stressful activities that would require me to take time off work the following week to recover. Going to the zoo or the children’s museum on a Saturday?? On purpose? Going to a local event like an art fair, or some kind of market, or some kind of carnival? Coordinating multiple dates with different friends on multiple consecutive evenings? Planning any kind of event where you need to be at a specific place, at a specific time, for more than an hour, requiring you to arrange for childcare, and eat food that isn’t the preferred food you love to eat on a daily basis? For fun? Really?
I’m self-conscious to tell anybody what I am most looking forward to: cleaning the house, then sitting on the couch in the clean living room, looking out the window, with no need to do anything or be anywhere. Perhaps reading a book, or taking a nap. If I’m really ambitious, pulling some weeds from the garden, or cleaning out and organizing a closet. In the afternoon, cooking something with vegetables. Talking to my wife about what she is hoping for, what she is anticipating, how she is feeling. Listening to my daughter play with her dolls in the next room, and cutting off the crust of her bread to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for her lunch. I love eating the crust that I cut from the bread for my daughter’s sandwich. It brings me a simple satisfaction that somehow I wouldn’t get from eating a whole piece of bread, or making a sandwich for myself.
I am uncomfortable about these things because I know many people wouldn’t consider them sufficiently joyful. If someone suggests (and they sometimes do) that I don’t have enough joy in my life, my reflexive reaction is to think “Oh god, I’m doing it all wrong!” But if I pause, and think, I hope to have the confidence to ask, “What is joy for you?” And perhaps we can discuss the things that make us joyful and appreciate the differences, rather than judging whose joy is more fulfilling or worthy.