Lately, I have been thinking about joy. An effect of the season, no doubt. We are warmly greeted and best wished. We are told, exhorted, to be merry and let nothing us dismay, to be of good cheer, to be happy. And we are told this is a joyous season, a season of joy. Somehow, to me, joy seems qualitatively different than merriness, cheeriness, happiness; of a different order than being wished and greeted—somehow weightier, more consequential, more momentous, more meaningful. A season of joy. What might joy consist of, be like, feel like, to account for that intuitive sense of difference, I wonder. What is astir in that word, what hovers within it, gives it its talismanic charge?
In his novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Sherman Alexie provides an intriguing conception of joy. Junior, the novel’s 14-year-old Spokane Indian protagonist, seeking to realize his dream of a more fulfilling life, has left the reservation to attend high school in the all-white town of Reardan, some twenty miles away. He befriends the smartest boy at Reardan High School, Gordy, who mentors him on the proper way to read a book. Gordy tells Junior “you should approach each book—you should approach life—with the real possibility that you might get a metaphorical boner at any point.” Junior is stunned. “What the heck is a metaphorical boner?” Gordy replies, “When I say boner, I really mean joy.” “Then why didn’t you say joy,” Junior asks. “Boner is funnier,” Gordy answers. “And more joyful.” Under Gordy’s subsequent tutelage, Junior comes to “realize that hard work—that the act of finishing, of completing, of accomplishing, a task—is joyous.”
A metaphorical boner. In this image, seemingly silly yet perfectly drawn from the erotic clamor of adolescence, Alexie is telling us something important here about the psychology of joy, its texture and contour, its creation and reception. It’s significant, I think, that joy here is described not just as openness to the potential for being excited by, aroused by, stimulated by, uncovering the mystery, the richness, that lies enfolded in books, but also, like books themselves, as an ordered arrangement and sequential process for carrying a task through, from starting point to finishing point. Joy is not some unbidden rapture that breaks in upon us and carries us away; rather, joy is in some sense summoned, a subjective state intertwined with an objective act, the embodied experience of an effort, being finding cadence and diction in doing.
Alexie reiterates this point later in the novel when, in the space of two months, Junior experiences a torrential assault of tragedy: the senseless deaths of his grandmother, his friend Eugene, and his sister Mary. Why, he wonders, has he been singled out for so much grief? Why has he been snared in the sorrow’s too-muchness? Utterly distraught, wanting “to kill God,” feeling absolutely “joyless,” he embarks on a campaign “to find the little pieces of joy in my life,” the only way he knows “to make it through all that death and change.” He begins making lists of the people and things that “had given me the most joy in my life,” and continues making list after list, rewriting, revising, reediting, and rethinking. “It became my grieving ceremony,” Junior says. And in the crucibled intensity of this listing, this finding and sequential assembling of words, this ritual act of imposing structure, of making order amid the prattle of senselessness and the babble of contingency, Junior transcends it and, finally, reclaims joy.
Joy is, I think, ultimately about the richness of being we feel when we bestow sense on the senseless. We are blessed creatures, graced with life and the capacities to make that life expansive, expectant, fulfilling. Yet, at the same time, we are also finite creatures, limited, squeezed into a narrow timewidth, subject to the random and the unpredictable, to chance and tragedy, to the undeserved and unmerited. We are continually wounded, it seems, and the wounds often appear stubbornly impervious to suturing. In the face of our finitude, in our being beset by the arbitrary, the accidental, the sheer thrownness of things, it is all too easy to grow fatalistic, joyless, unless we make use of the fundamental rituals, the elemental ordering acts, that can give us “little pieces of joy”: nurture, friendship, inquisitiveness, compassion, craft for the hands, work that sharpens the mind. These small structuring ceremonies, these purposeful bestowals of sense and meaning, these are the way to joy, for they can be heralding signs, emblems that what we do, what we partake of, is the partial realization of a larger, more comprehensive order. And joy itself? It can take us outside ourselves, beyond the littleness that snares our spirit, can gesture beyond our finitude, can arrest the realities of here-and-now, can carve out a cranny in time, a time within time, a vestibule where we floresce, flourish.
Joy, as activity imbued with purpose and the delight we take from it for its own sake, can provide a privileged glimpse of transcendence, of the more so that we are. We take a step, take several steps, turn a corner, and there we are. We meet the meant of ourselves, the deep of us that points beyond us. We are not marooned in the mere, the only. Is this not the message embedded in the steeples and spires and vast vaulted ceilings of the great cathedrals? Is this not the message encoded in the incarnate deity whose birth is celebrated in this season? Is it not a message that speaks to us in any season?