“Mmm, that’s nice, I’ve never been asked that question. Joy brings me joy.” - Dr. Maya Angelou
I’ve spent most of my life afraid of joy. As I write this, it’s one in the morning and I’m supposed to work at 7am, I’m laid over the edge of my bed squinting at my phone in the dark. I’m uncomfortable but not more uncomfortable than the nagging feeling I have that if I don’t get this out now I may not remember when I “have time”.
It is normal, though rarely discussed, this fear we have of joy. Mine, like many people’s I’m sure, was exacerbated by a childhood of very high highs and very low lows. Nothing good can last, they say. And it was always my firm belief that it was best to stay prepared for the joy to run out, at any second.
So many things we consume are tinged with this outlook. It occurred to me recently how many TV shows I watch on the edge of my seat waiting for things to go wrong. Waiting for couples I’ve waited seasons to see get together break up in the same episode because it would be boring to let them be happy. Waiting for an unexpected foundation issue to blow up the budget of a seemingly risk-free fixer upper. Waiting for the murderer to turn out to be the one guy I was kind of rooting for. Waiting for the proverbial other shoe. This anxiety is so embedded that sometimes I’m almost relieved when things do go wrong, so at least then it’s done and out in the open. As though grief is easier to bear.
There are a couple of very nice things that I will credit with helping to shake me out of my fear. And I will recommend them to you, because perhaps they will change your life too, and if they don’t, fine. They will still be very nice things.
The first, and arguably most pivotal for me, is a little TV show called Schitt’s Creek. If you don’t watch it, I will only say that you should. I won’t get into a long explanation of plot or premise, but simply I will say this, it has changed my blood pressure to watch characters I have come to love find happiness. It has changed my life to believe that this in itself is rewarding. That needless drama and heartbreak isn’t necessary to poignant and crucial storytelling. That joy is its own plot, and that the pursuit of it is a privilege to witness. This show, for all of its hilarious absurdity, has a heart unlike anything I’ve seen before or since. It dares to imagine relationships of all kinds, romantic, platonic, familial and community, that grow through sheer force of love and acceptance. And not until things go wrong... but through things going wrong, and still when things turn out okay, or even when they don’t. The idea that joy might withstand, that love might last, that community can hold— what a gift.
And then, second, (but only 2nd in this list and literally nowhere else), there’s Beyoncé. What can I say about Homecoming that hasn’t essentially been said in a meaningful gif of a black woman in the front row graciously receiving her life from our queen? There aren’t many words to describe the gratitude I feel for this film, for this moment, for this legend. There is a complete and fierce joy that she brings, not just in her performance but in her music. That even heartache becomes a soul shaking testimony to the exhilarating thrill of being alive. That there is possible a love so extraordinary you could lose and find yourself within it. And that she’s generous enough to share that, again and again, standing on stage with her perfect ass just beaming. So that we all might feel accepted, might feel she’s speaking to us, might feel worthy of something so unbelievably beautiful even though we tired and crusty and half-dead. What it means to feel and to know thatBeyoncé loves us this much. Doesn’t that alone make us worthy of everything?
It’s indulgent to pretend the only work to overcoming a lifelong fear of joy is binging Dan Levy and Beyoncé. I wish it were that simple. We all know, whether we admit it or not, that nothing can heal in us the things we won’t face. And it is hardly cute or fun to stare down an aversion to happiness. I don’t enjoy typing this, exposing the embittered pessimism I for so long clung to believing it made me interesting and broody and artistic. I’ve had a lot of help in admitting that it could be okay to believe things might be okay.
It’s still new to me, and surprisingly uncomfortable to lean into enjoying happiness. Not just my own either, but other peoples as well. Genuinely enjoying the joy of other people, can you imagine. Makes me realize how much we’re trained to expect the worst and to root against each other. And to what end? So that when and if we are ever lucky enough to finally get all the things we’ve hoped and dreamed of we can celebrate alone?
It’s lonely at the top, they say. But does it have to be? If we could all come around on the idea that maybe joy is nice? That there is enough to go around and that maybe it could be all right for things to work out a little. To go wrong and come back around. To break and get fixed to be better than new. Could we maybe then get on the same team? Create a community of encouraging and accepting and applauding each other? Is there not a way to embrace the idea that joy could sustain us? That maybe we don’t actually need carnage and mayhem to feel sated and validated?
I admit it’s a terrifying prospect. Geeking out on happiness means there’s something to lose. It’s true that reveling in sorrow offers a sort of twisted abundance where you’re never worried about a lack because the lack is everywhere. But if you can, sit with what it feels like observing even a flash of joy in someone’s day. The smile on someone’s face when they see something that truly makes them laugh. The way it feels to really feel understood by another person, to feel that they see who you are, even just a little, and they like it. What it’s like when someone makes a place for you. What it’s like to know that Beyoncé Knowles Carter gave up MOST SOLID FOODS for you.
Even if the joy is fleeting... do yourself a favor. Chase it.