My advice? Stop thinking so much and start experiencing. Photo: Horsehead Nebula
In The Cut’s ‘Dear Polly’ in New York Magazine, Thirty and Grumpy wants to know how to get her joy back.
I love your column and your book, How to Be a Person in the World. I’m not the best at putting what’s in my heart into words, but I’ve been feeling something bubbling up inside me and I hope you can give me some advice.
I turned 30 this year, and over the course of my late 20s I’ve noticed this inexorable creep of, shall we say, undesired changes to my outlook on life. The past two years, especially, have been tough on me: finding out a boyfriend of six months was an alcoholic, my dad getting cancer and cutting contact with me and my sister, my sister who has borderline personality disorder being signed off work for depression, and my two closest friends sinking into a deep depression of their own. Losing two-thirds of my savings in badly timed cryptocurrency investments didn’t help either. But it’s not just my own trivial life happenings; I’m also growing more cynical because of the stories I’m becoming aware of in the world at large. Climate change, billionaires who don’t pay their taxes, the growing number of people in my city who sleep rough every night, the lying bozos in charge of our governments, police brutality, and on and on.
Polly replies in ribald fashion:
Dear Thirty and Grumpy,
Joie de vivre is a strange thing. What I’ve noticed in my own life is that I feel shittier and shittier when I blame myself for everything I feel (sadness, longing, impatience, rage) and I feel better and better the more I forgive myself for being just another downtrodden, flinchy human animal with your typical bad wiring system, obsessive brain, and exotic desires. Just in the past year, I’ve gone from feeling faintly ashamed of who I am to feeling pretty goddamn comfortable with myself, and I have to say it makes a gigantic difference.
There’s more to Polly’s reply, but I’d like to take it from here. Finding joy isn’t really about accepting and forgiving yourself. Joy is actually non-awareness of your connected experience. The way back to joy is to stop thinking so much and start doing and experiencing again. The bad things in our lives or in the world happen with or without us, and I am not one to tell people that ignorance is bliss because it’s not true. I know so many people who avoid the news, as an example, because they feel depressed and impotent to make any change. They remove themselves from the world. But in avoiding life, we avoid experience, and we diminish ourselves in the process. Sure, the news is depressing, that’s because good news doesn’t sell. But if one cares about what’s happening in the world and it’s depressing you, then stop just thinking about it and use your voice and your talents to change some small part that you can, in your way, with your voice. Your voice in the world is a source of joy.
Joy isn’t something (usually) that you wake up missing suddenly one day: it’s a process of erosion, of disconnection, until one day we find life flavourless, colourless, and not worth it. We feel disconnected from the world around us. We can only have joy if we are connected to the world and the people around us through experience. We can only find joy again if we joyfully remember our place in the world as an active agent experiencing the world.
The rest of a response, I will leave to R.D. Laing who, in his book The Politics of Experience, says this about joy and human potential:
As adults, we have forgotten most of our childhood, not only its contents but its flavour; as men of the world, we hardly know of the existence of the inner world: we barely remember our dreams, and make little sense of them when we do; as for our bodies, we retain-just sufficient proprioceptive sensations to coordinate our movements and to ensure the minimal requirements for biosocial survival to register fatigue, signals for food, sex, defecation, sleep; beyond that, little or nothing. Our capacity to think, except in the service of what we are dangerously deluded in supposing is our self-interest, and in conformity with common sense, is pitifully limited: our capacity even to see, hear, touch, taste and smell is so shrouded in veils of mystification that an intensive discipline of un-learning is necessary for anyone before one can begin to experience the world afresh, with innocence, truth and love.
The experience of being the actual medium for a continual process of creation takes one past all depression or persecution or vain glory, past, even, chaos or emptiness, into the very mystery of that continual flip of non-being into being, and can be the occasion of that great liberation when one makes the transition from being afraid of nothing, to the realisation that there is nothing to fear.
To be a person in the world is to be part of the world you live in. Bertrand Russell once said the stars are already all in our brains. The totality of joy is already in all of us, part of our universal connection to all things. Shrinking from or shutting out life will only make you grumpier.
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