The Book Of January
Reading about the death of the late Archbishop Desmond Tutu I was reminded of the impact he had had on the world through his activism during apartheid and with the Truth and Reconciliation project. To pay homage I thought I’d read one of his books. I settled on the Book Of Joy as I thought it sounded like a most fitting book for January. I’d like to have plenty of joy in this new year.
A bigger reason why the book caught my attention is because I have been thinking a lot about joy. I’ve been struggling with the fact that I’m doing ok, but so many aren’t; How could I live with joy when there is so much suffering in the world? There was a period last year when this question really got me down. Scanning the book before diving in, it seems that this is the most popular question that was put to both Archbishop Tutu and the Dalai Lama, his co-author. The book is based on a series of conversations between the two spiritual leaders over a five day period to answer questions about cultivating joy sent from people all over the world.
What is joy?
I came out of my melancholic period by taking up JiuJitsu. In fact, it made me joyful! Which I found puzzling as grappling can be described as a form of self-inflicted torture. It made me question if I actually know what joy is. I know it certainly isn’t the same as happiness. I try hard not to use the word happy/happiness as I feel it is superficial, temporary, Hollywood-esque, and unattainable–the constant desire for perfection and looking to others to save us. The Archbishop shared a similar perspective. He classified happiness as being short-lived and dependent on external sources, while joy comes from within. It subsumes happiness and is a far greater thing. Paul Ekman, a psychologist and emotions researcher defines a wide range of feelings joy encompasses:
The Buddhist scholar and former scientist Matthieu Ricard has added three other more exalted states of joy to that of Ekman’s: “rejoicing (in someone else’s happiness, what Buddhists call mudita), delight or enchantment (a shining kind of contentment), and spiritual radiance (a serene joy born from deep well-being and benevolence)” (The Book of Joy p. 34). Meditating on the above definition I comprehended that with JiuJitsu I’m undertaking a difficult task, but as I make progress I get a mixture of wonder (that I can make my body do weird moves like the shrimp), relief (that I’d didn’t hurt myself) and exultation (that I’m getting better). Further, I realized that joy is more enduring than happiness because it requires work, and even pain. To achieve the feeling of joy from JiuJitsu I’ve had to put in hours of training, and fall on the wrong side of my ass many times. To borrow the Archbishop’s example, a mother has to go through the excruciating pain of childbirth to meet her bundle of joy, the baby. Joy is also more attainable than happiness because it is dependent on our individual actions.
Cultivating joy in the presence of despair
On to the real question at hand: how can I be joyful when others are suffering? Archbishop Tutu starts to answer this question with “you show our humanity”. But isn’t this the same humanity that has inflicted so much pain and suffering in the first place? Yes, he acknowledged that it is. However, he said it is also important to remember our capacity for goodness. He gives the example of Doctors Without Borders, doctors who willingly leave their comfortable and safe homes and practices in places like Paris and New York to go to the most devastated places and dangerous situations to help complete strangers. These doctors, he postulates, “are just showing us what we are all capable of being…: people of compassion” (The Book of Joy, p.116). They asked the question we all ought to ask: what can I do to help, to change the situation?
I recall feeling powerless in my gloomy period. I couldn’t see what I could do for the girls unable to go to school because of the return of the Taliban in Afghanistan or for the 94% of people in Nigeria without Covid-19 vaccines. I realized that other than giving financial support to organizations that can help in these cases, the first and foremost thing I can do is to cultivate joy so I can spread it to those I interact with. As the cognitive neuroscientist Tali Sharot wrote in her book The Influential Mind, emotion is extremely contagious. I can influence others through the emotions I manifest while interacting with them. I’ve found the more joyful I am, the more I see others and feel connected to them.
The psychiatrist Howard Cutler corroborated this in the book he wrote with the Dalai Lama, The Art of Happiness: “In fact, survey after survey has shown that it is unhappy people who tend to be most self-focused and are socially withdrawn, brooding, and even antagonistic. Happy people, in contrast, are generally found to be more sociable, flexible, and creative, and are able to tolerate life’s daily frustrations more easily than unhappy people. And, most importantly, they are found to be more loving and forgiving than unhappy people.”. His use of “happy/happiness” isn’t lost on me, I too have used it to refer to joy. However, I believe that his definition is not dissimilar to that of joy I gave above. Just today I got to experience the impact of spreading joy to others. After I finished working out at the gym I was feeling so good that I remembered to go and thank the personal trainer that put together the program for me a couple of months ago. I told him how much I liked the program and that I could see my progress. His face and body lit up with surprise, and he then offered to teach me more new stuff whenever I’m ready. This cheered me up even more, and I went home more motivated to get back to work.
Nevertheless, Archbishop Tutu stressed that he isn’t asking us to be optimistic, and that it is ok to be appalled by the terrible things we humans can do to each other. Rather, he is asking us to be hopeful because optimism can quickly turn to pessimism when things don’t turn out as we would like, while hope is a deeper feeling, “a steadfast faith that there can never be a situation that is utterly, totally hopeless. To choose hope is to step firmly forward into the howling wind, baring one’s chest to the elements, knowing that, in time, the storm will pass.” (The Book of Joy, p.122).
As I’ve written before, I’m not a fan of making new year resolutions but I do believe in striving. This year I strive to cultivate and spread as much joy as I’m capable of.
I had planned to spend the end of the year holiday period reading lots of books but ended up reading just one light, romance novel. Instead I spent the time catching up on TV shows I had read or heard about. Here are the two I most enjoyed:
Mare of Easttown: A murder mystery set in a small town in Pennsylvania, staring Kate Winslet. This will leave you guessing till the end. How can so much happen in a small town? But they pulled it off, I couldn’t binge watch it fast enough!
Pan y Circo: It is a series of conversations over dinner moderated by the Mexican actor Diego Luna. The title caught my attention because it is a saying that dates back to Roman times that expresses the masses being kept docile by the emperors with food and entertainment. I was feeling docile and guilty that I wasn’t spending my time doing something “useful”. I figured that since I’ve learned a “lot” about Mexico through soap operas, I ought to educate myself about its serious side. The topics covered in the show range from gender violence to environmental devastation. Even though the topics were kinda heavy, it was very engaging and educational.
Lex Fridman in conversation with Norman Naimark. Professor Naimark is a historian specializing in Eastern Europe, genocide and ethnic cleansing. Listening to their discussion, I chuckled at his realism in the face of Lex’s naive optimism. What struck me the most is that even though this is a man who has spent a long time studying the worst of humanity, he is still hopeful.