In 1996—the year I graduated from high school—Pema Chödron published When Things Fall Apart. At some point in the next decade or two, the book somehow made its way onto my shelf, and while I thumbed through it here and there, I only came to really appreciate it about halfway through 2020, when it was clear that things were indeed falling apart: all around me, across our country, and on a global scale. I pulled the book from my shelf, not with the light curiosity of more privileged times, but with the thirst of a student seeking a manual on how to survive unrecognizable days.
In this timeless book about suffering, Chödron wrote many important words of wisdom, but those that really caught me at this particular time were these:
“Times are difficult globally. Awakening is no longer a luxury or an ideal. It’s becoming critical. We don’t need to add more depression, more discouragement or more anger to what’s already here. It’s becoming essential that we learn how to relate sanely with difficult times. The earth seems to be beseeching us to connect with joy and discover our innermost essence. This is the best way that we can benefit others.”
As I read these words, I wondered: if she wrote this then—how much more true must it be today, amidst a global pandemic, racial uprisings, huge political divides, a climate crisis, and on and on and on…? Would her advice change completely now, or can I surmise that this simply means that our duty to unveil our innermost light is even more critical now?
It can feel so inappropriate to be joyful when things are falling apart, much less to share that joy with others who might be grieving or traumatized at any given moment. Isn’t it insensitive to smile amidst others’ tears? But here, in a widely respected classic of a spiritual text, was the advice that, as counter-intuitive as it might feel to turn to wonder and joy when the world is falling apart all around us—that’s when we need it the most.
Here was a book about pain. It talked quite a bit about joy.
Months later, I found myself perusing another book, Braiding Sweetgrass, because it seemed like something my husband might like for his permaculture studies. As I read, I learned that the author, Robin Wall Kimmerer, is not only a scientist and professor, but also a Native American, and deeply gifted at inspiring us to care for the planet not only with the tool of science but also by looking through lenses of community, and poetry, and spirituality, and morality. In one of the many, varied essays, she describes how easy it is to become discouraged and depressed by the state of our planet. When we’re deluged by information about the destruction of the world without hearing what we can do about it, we’re left with fear, sorrow, and powerlessness. She argues that then, our natural inclination to do right by this earth is stifled, and we fall into despair when we should be taking action.
What then, might help us take action? What is an antidote to despair? Here’s one answer, in her words:
“Even a wounded world is feeding us. Even a wounded world holds us, giving us moments of wonder and joy. I choose joy over despair, not because I have my head in the sand, but because joy is what the earth gives me daily, and I must return the gift.”
Her words help me understand that while, yes, there is so much pain here on earth, to fail to practice celebration would be disrespectful of the other half of what’s going on—and disrespectful of nature itself. Disrespectful of how our cuts scab over and heal, and how animals evolve capacities to better fit their shifting environments. Disrespectful of how each storm is followed by the help of the strong and how each pandemic so far has shifted slowly into times where friends can share hugs once again.
Here was a book about science. It talked quite a bit about joy.
Then, in the last month or so, while lying in savasana at the end of a virtual yoga class, I learned of another, more recent book, The Book of Joy, by the Dalai Llama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. A beloved yoga teacher read a passage from the book: Desmond Tutu’s words, describing the contagious nature of joy, generosity and compassion—and urging us to see that the goal is not just to create contentment for ourselves but “to be a reservoir of joy, an oasis of peace, a pool of serenity that can ripple out to all those around you.”
Here was a book on spirituality. It talked quite a bit about joy.
“A trifecta!” I thought, lying on my mat. Okay. I’ll listen.”
I can let go of any fears about the inappropriateness of sharing my joy during hard times. And when I feel I have overstayed a productive amount of time in despair, I will practice gratitude, and generosity, and celebration, and encouragement, so that I can drum up my inner joy.
I’m not encouraging a Pollyanna denial of hardship. We must feel and grieve and rage and cry. But sometimes we get stuck in the land of grief, or use it as a defense against the risks of disappointment or heartbreak. As Tutu says “Resignation and cynicism are easier…”
I’m also not saying that there’s some time limit for how long you get to grieve before you need to get on with it lest the rest of us be burdened. There is neither a fixed time limit for our varying pains, nor a statute of limitations on old hurts which we may need to revisit at any time.
And I’m not talking about hedonism, or having fun for the sake of fun. The gluttony of over-wanting, over-spending, and over-distracting is what got us to this place in history where we would need seven Earths to sustain current modern habits.
What I am saying is that contentment and celebration are not only okay during hard times like these, but can be medicine for them. And that joy is healing not only for ourselves but for anyone lucky enough to be around us as we emit genuine delight. Such a gift is nice to give any old day, but even more important when life seems bleak and meaningless, or chaotic and frightening. Reminders of the celebrations that are possible on this planet can act as buoys when downward moving currents are strongest.
So, my friends: what tiny thing might you celebrate, and whom might you celebrate with? What joys, small or large, could travel from some unspoken place within you, to your tongue? Where might the reasons not to practice joy feel small enough to experiment with something new?
I’ll end with another quote from Desmond Tutu—a man who deserves our ear on the topic: “…[A]s we discover more joy, we can face suffering in a way that ennobles rather than embitters. We have hardship without becoming hard. We have heartbreak without being broken.”
May it be so.