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We All Suck at Joy

Regular readers, if any remain, no doubt have noticed that there have been no posts on Story by the Throat! in a long, long time. There are a number of reasons for this. There are a lot of things pulling on my mental and physical resources that make it difficult to do such a simple thing as write blog posts.

I’m going to be real with you for a moment. My life is not what I want. like, really, truly deeply falling short of what I dream and yearn for. Oh yes, I have many pleasures, many wonderful, enriching friends, many creative and fulfilling pursuits available to me. And of course I live a life of incredible privilege compared to most of the world. But still somehow I find myself beaten down by life until I can barely even remember my dreams, much less pursue them. I drive many miles to work long hours at a job I hate, for a world machine designed to chew me up and spit out the bones. The joyous work I dream of doing–celebrating story, poetry, music–is unsupported in society outside of a corporate-sponsored celebrity system. The precious work that awaits me at home–husband, father, simple liver off the land–increasingly declines as the job exacts its toll. It takes the best wine from my cup and leaves me with dregs.

It’s like I’m running a deficit on spiritual resources; everything I do, everything I attempt, requires a loan against a soul reserve I can’t back up. And acts of love, of creativity, of joy, are the most draining, so it’s much easier to sit and anesthetize the ache with entertainment and frivolity. My time and energy are drained away until I have none left for the pursuits I care most deeply about.

And I’m not alone. I think many of us, maybe all of us, are suffering in one degree or another from this soul disease. Someone I love has found themselves stuck, trapped in a life that looks far different from what they planned, hemmed in with debt and workload and isolation until even the ability to hope for more is numbed.

We all suck at joy. We long for it, and I believe we were born for it. Yet we exist in profound confusion on how to get it. We sabotage our hopes, trap ourselves in our own desires, and delude ourselves about what we really want. We’ve built an entirely civilization that by design devalues joy, denigrates humanity, and consumes everything of value. With the spare soul change we have left over after the machine eats its fill, we attempt to pour spirit into that which we love. And it drains us, desiccates us, leaves us half-people. And we thank it. In fact, because we are still taught to dream, when those dreams don’t come true we often conclude that it’s our fault. Which is no surprise; the abused often blame themselves.

We all suck at joy. In this world-machine, joy is broken. What we’re engaged in now is joy rehab. The saying goes, “there are two kinds of people: those who are in recovery, and those who aren’t.” It’s grim work, but not futile. Joy Recovery means taking baby steps toward where your heart lives. It means valuing friends and loved ones the best you can, it little ways, then slightly bigger ways, then ever bigger. It means learning to hear the voice of inner knowing that tells you–YOU, and no one else–where your soul finds its food. The Rewilding movement, for instance, is dedicated to finding alternatives to Civilization’s way of life. My friend Willem Larsen recently said in a radio interview, “Rewilding…is following your heart.” Far from the trite platitude greeting cards have made of it, following your heart is an excruciating soul labor, grueling but rewarding.

We all suck at joy. Which means we need each other now more than ever. We need each other’s assurance that more awaits us than endless bleak moments stretching onward toward an inevitable death. We need each others’ voices to drown the voices of shame. We need each other’s perspectives to break down the programming and form new pathways for our thoughts. We need each other’s shoulders to weep on when the machine bears down more than we can bear. Willem, again, says, “Rewilding…is also about connecting to your family–your larger family, your village–and to the land where you live and belong.”

We were born for joy. A world that does not give it to us is diseased. That doesn’t mean that we cannot have it–it only means that we need to pursue it, lunge for it, claw it loose with bloody fingers from the fossilized rock where it is imprisoned. I’ll help you claw yours if you’ll help me claw mine.

Peace,

—Joel

11 thoughts on “We All Suck at Joy”

  1. All of this—all of this—connects profoundly to what has preoccupied my thoughts for many months now. Thank you, for saying it out loud and reminding me that I don’t face this alone, and for crafting it in the kind of beauty that reveals the truth of the whole situation.

  2. Glad I struck a chord, fellas. I knew when the thought sprung into my head (following from very real and present circumstances), that it was meant to be blogged. I felt it in my bones.

  3. Thanks again, Joel, for another of your posts. Your thoughts are always enriching. Now for the real question: how do we help each other not suck at joy? This is something I think we’re always tackling in my faith community, but it’s a constant process, and I’d love to hear other’s thoughts.

    Also, JGodesky: need more podcasts! I love your show, man, and I’d love to hear more. Mick Bradley & CP too, for that matter.

  4. Great post Joel, and gets me thinking. I love my life, and I work damn hard but I feel rewarded every day. I have days of overwhelming stress, but in every quiet moment I feel my heart thrumming with Joy.

    Now I don’t know you and don’t generally give advice, but in case you need to hear it: QUIT THAT JOB. You will, at one point or another, leave that work. Do it now while you can still articulate your pain and before it totally grinds you down.

  5. in case you need to hear it: QUIT THAT JOB.

    Thanks, Brad. Believe me, I am on it. I realized this the LAST time there was ugliness at work. I made a big determination in my head, then did nothing. This time, I’m updating my resume.

    Hans: Helping each other not suck at Joy? That’s the trick, isn’t it? I hinted at some generalities above: assurance, shoulders to cry on, telling our stories, listeing to the stories of others. But techniques for making that work? Still in development, at least in my case.

    My personal faith community, The Bridge (link above) approaches this in several rad and amazing ways–first, they remove the judging component of religion, so that telling our story–our honest, guts-on-the-floor story, is safe and celebrated. Second, they encourage expression, in terms of raw emotion and artistry, in whatever form it takes for every person, leading to an outpouring of joy as well as pain in a big wonderful mess. Third, the pastors and music leaders focus in their talks and songs on healing and coping mechanisms, as opposed to, say, right and wrong, shame and blame.

    So that’s a start. Anyone else have methods to share?

  6. An excerpt from that novel I’m working on, as it seems fitting:

    In the end, you will only ever touch one thing. It will haunt you forever. If you are sad now, you will be sad forever. And no amount of salt-water upon your brow or silk trails or gentle touches will ever change that fact. And you can be happy, and you can go sailing, and you can have children and they can even grow up to be happy people. Because anyone can quit on a good day. It’s not the good days that make us who we are.

    If you’re a smoker now, you’ll always be a smoker. Even if you never smoke another cigarette in your life, even if a lacuna swallows your memory of the word cigarette, new lungs, new lips, you’ll die a smoker.

    I’ve spent the last five years frustrated with myself. Spent the last five years unable to point the business end of my fury at anybody else. I’ve been chain smoking self-contempt since I managed to get a spark out of the damn thing. And it ain’t gonna change. The iths didn’t change it, the spiders can’t change it neither. The shapeshifter, well none of her forms have ever been soothing to it. None of them ever will. Success can’t change it. Failure can’t.

    It’s the one thing I get to truly touch in my lifetime.

    So, that’s sort of am hearing in what you’re saying, too, I guess.

    Our demons live inside us, and the best we can do is keep fighting. Which sounds morose, but fighting for beauty is worth doing. With the exception of eating and sleeping, it’s the only thing worth doing.

    I’m not sure you’ll ever escape these demons, Joel. But I’ve seen the strength and voracity with which you fight them, and I’m pretty sure that you’ll seize that upper hand more often than not.

  7. Chilling and honest. Grim but hopeful. Yes, Joe, I see the kinship between my words and yours. And you’re right, I don’t know that I’ll ever defeat despair. It’d be nice, but I’m not certain it’s even the right goal. Perhaps balance is? An equilibrium of emotions, where all states of being are in a sort of harmony?

    I mean, right now I don’t have that. Joy is fleeting, and despair when it comes seems monolithic and eternal. I don’t know what a balanced state would look like. But it seems a more realistic goal–and a more wholesome goal, if you get my meaning–than eradicating sorrow.

    Thank you for speaking the truth, man. Much love to you.

  8. Thanks so much for this post. Thanks so much for using the phrase “corporate-sponsored celebrity system”. I have been thinking a lot lately about how Celebrity comes from Celebrate, and about how seldom we celebrate what we truly love. Instead we compare ourselves and our friends to people we will never meet, people we probably really would rather not even know. And meanwhile, the really influential people in our lives go unrecognized, uncelebrated.

    It hadn’t occurred to me that this skewed habit was a corporate-sponsored system, but of course, you’re right.

    Time to Celebrate the really important people in our lives!
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  9. Thanks, Anne. that’s a keen observation about the roots of “Celebrity.” So often something of deep dinner value to humans–joy, love, celebration–gets co-opted by the world machine into something cheap and unfulfilling. “Love” is used to sell Valentine chocolate, engagement rings, and McDonalds. “Family” becomes politicized into “family values,” “family entertainment,” cellphone “family plans,” and so on. And “Celebration,” the tradition of sharing deep appreciation for each other, becomes the worship of silver-screen demigods.

    A depressing realization–but only by naming these demons can we cast them out. Or at least that’s my hope. Finding and identifying the invisible chains that anchor me to the machine is a life’s work.

    There’s no handy guide for how to spot them. But the existential suffering I talked about in this post could in the end turn out to be a useful tool. Like someone once said: “Life is pain, highness. Anyone who tells you differently is selling something.”

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