Liz is a visual communication designer at Hope Lab and she has me pondering Joy, or happiness+ as they’ve called it. When she took an interest in my wdydwyd picture I couldn’t help but ask to trade my thoughts on Joy for a wdydwyd portrait of her. To be entirely honest, I tried to trade her wdydwyd picture for my collection of C.S. Lewis’ thoughts on Joy but she wouldn’t make a bargain so easy on me. So I had to dig deep and share Joy and my own experiences.
In my life Joy is happiness + loosing all track of time, could be feeling the full weight of history pressing down upon me. The world so wild I feel vulnerable, and something else makes me feel hidden or protected. Joy sets me in motion. It’s never as lethargic as pleasure or happiness can be. The center of Joy is a longing which reminds me I’m not there yet, still growing. That hopeful outlook is part of the exhilaration. Joy is completely different than happiness. All of the differences are invisible to the eye.
I now invite you to stop reading if you’ve had enough; I’ve described my Joy. The rest is a set of almost embarrassingly personal memories that pointed me towards my understanding of Joy.
When I was three years old we lived in a green house on east 10th street with a small orchard and barn. Mom forbid me to enter the barn’s attic, saying it was dangerous, which of course made me immeasurably curious. I remember climbing into the attic one day and finding a faded blue wicker rocking chair. It looked very fine in the faint light full of dust motes, and suddenly I felt urgently that I was close to doing or knowing something extraordinary. The attic was very quiet and I felt safe from my mother’s disciplinarian eye. If only I could sit in the chair I might grasp it… I hastily moved a stack of something off the chair but the motivation faded as I sat down. I was no longer close to it, and it hadn’t lasted long enough for me to properly grasp what it was. At the time I blamed the thought’s flight on the unwholesome noise the chair made when I sat down.
Perhaps two years later we had moved to a house overlooking the Cascades. My brother and I would play through the scrub oaks around the cherry orchards above our house – a place we called The Mountains. One day we stumbled upon a small trench winding up the hillside. So close to places we had run countless times but it was shallow and overgrown with tall grass and other greens; it might be overlooked from even a few feet away. I crouched down, then kneeled and when I hid in the trench something odd happened to time. I had been hidden in the trench for time out of mind, or I had some other sense of ancientness pressing down upon me, like I was hiding where others had hidden. They had been industrious and important and they had sheltered in this grassy, wet hiding place that transported them across the hill. The trench had been instrumental in some weighty endeavor. I realized this would make an excellent game to play with my brother, as soon as my mind crystalized enough around who they were that I could describe them. But the image never gelled, and my brother said something brusque like “why are you crawling in the mud?” I blamed him for disrupting my concentration but I didn’t say anything because part of me knew it had begun to fade before he interrupted me.
At seven or eight I was too young to walk far when my father went pheasant hunting but he would take my brother and I out to Remington’s wheat fields to play in the creek bed while he and the dogs walked the hills above. Guns are scary. Even if you are not the fearful animal, a child’s mind intuits that something is scared. The creek bed was the protected magical underneath, a tunnel of thick tree cover that muffled gunshots and sunlight and everything else. Plastered the ground with red and yellow leaves as small as chicken eggs. Safe. I had the idea that if I ran swiftly enough up the creek bed I might discover the one perfect thing to make believe that most completely was autumn. As if I might catch the fleeting idea by chasing it. This is the precise moment I recall whenever I think of what it feels like to run light of foot, but eventually I was tired and my chase failed. I wasn’t sad. The creek bed is one of my favorite places and this chasing is one of my fondest memories despite never catching or even being able to describe what I meant to catch.
If you have ever had such experiences, you probably remember them fiercely and know precisely what I am talking about. If you have not, nostalgia is the most similar kind of longing you probably know. Different in that it was like nostalgia even then, not only in memory but even as it was happening, and it was so much more exhilarating!
Che Guevara described a similar sensation upon exploring Machu Pichu: “How is it possible to feel nostalgia for a world I never knew?” C.S. Lewis’ autobiography revolves around a few such experiences and he names the sensation Joy. I wouldn’t have called it Joy before reading C.S. Lewis but I have no other name for it. Like Lewis, I would say without doubt that The central story of my life is about nothing else…. I will only underline the quality common to the three experiences; it is that of an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction.
I haven’t had experiences like this in adulthood but I think of them often enough that they are still part of my life. When I think of Joy as happiness+, the + is some circumstance that reminds me. The center of Joy is a longing which puts me on a path to still more growth. Whenever I open a wardrobe or even a alluring closet, I reach through to knock the back wall. Not because I have any hope of finding Narnia on the other side, but because I might stumble into Joy, itself the longing for Narnia. My love of fairy tales, my creative endeavors and my quest for richer spiritual experiences. All tie back to a few moments of Joy.
Thank you C.S. Lewis for helping me make sense of these experiences. Thank you Liz for convincing me to chronicle and share them.