Lessons in Finding Joy When the Big Things Go Terribly Wrong
by Hayley Boyle
In the midst of the pandemic, we found out mom had oral cancer on the 21st anniversary of my dad’s death. And then two weeks shy of the 13th anniversary of my brother’s death, we had to put one of our beloved family dogs down.
How’s that for a big ol’ Universe “fuck you?”
And yet, I also know that none of us have escaped unscathed during these last eight months. I personally don’t know a single person who hasn’t had to confront some big tragedy or another. The daily headlines serve as a reminder that folks beyond my immediate circle of friends and family have also had it bad… really bad… that they’ve been dealing with big things, some of which seem like they have no end in sight.
The police murdered George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and so many others whose names many of us haven’t committed to memory. Tens of thousands protested for racial justice. Over 200,000 have lost their lives to COVID-19. Tens of millions of Americans have lost their jobs. Politics in the U.S. is broken beyond belief. The world at large is facing a reckoning with democracy, and in many places, the thought that it could survive is laughable at best.
All of these are big things. And the big things have been wrecking me. Bringing me to tears. Causing my heart to ache. Making my brain navigate what feels like an impenetrable fog of emotion and a simultaneously keen awareness of the injustice in the world.
I’ve made a half-hearted attempt on several occasions to joke with friends about how good we had it in the “before times.” But the reality is that the “before times” and our pre-pandemic world weren’t much different. There was still unrest, joblessness, and political strife in the “before times.” People still got cancer, had heart attacks, and even caught viruses and died. But so many of us were burdened with busyness, which left us capable, and in many ways privileged enough, to walk through our lives with blinders to these tragedies and the chaos.
The pandemic just forced us all home, canceled all our plans, made us sit with tragedy. Busy no longer, and with a spotlight shown on the ugliness of the world, many of us — myself included — have been left feeling like joy has been sucked out of life.
* * *
That feels bleak, right? I know it feels that way to me.
And then, on top of all the big things going on in the world at large, to also be confronted with personal big things like mom getting cancer and watching my dog take her last breath — well… I’d be lying if I said it left me feeling any sort of way except like I wanted to just stay in bed forever.
Like a typical American, I expected joy to come from big things and big feelings. I wanted to feel ecstatic. I wanted to be filled with anticipation and excitement. I expected my joy to come from big achievements, and meeting lofty goals, and the elation that comes from big parties and surprises and promotions. But these days, the big things happening aren’t leading to big feelings of joy. They’re bringing pain, suffering, and grief.
For the last eight months, as cliche as it may be, I’ve been attempting to find ways to not let the pain, suffering, and tragedy of the world — or in my own life — give me a new set of blinders to replace the ones removed by a lack of busyness. I find that it is easy to let trauma overcome me. It’s easy to feel hopeless, and let the sadness blind me to other paths to joy. As much as I wanted to stay in bed, day-after-day, consumed by each new terrible revelation, I knew that this was just swapping one set of blinders for another— busyness for overwhelming, paralyzing grief.
I’ve been thinking a lot about happiness, and what happiness even is, and whether or not I am happy. And so I was recently struck while listening to “The Pulse” with Maiken Scott on NPR — an episode appropriately titled “Chasing Happiness,” because that’s exactly how I had been feeling. Listening to this podcast about how we think about joy shed light on my own experience of it, and why — during this pandemic — I felt like I was not only chasing it but also failing miserably at the catch. During one of the segments, the podcast interviewed Jeanne Tsai, an Associate Professor of Psychology at Stanford University and director of the Stanford Culture and Emotion Lab. She spoke about cultural differences and expectations about happiness. The standard Western expectations of happiness associate it with feelings of excitement and thrill and exhilaration, whereas in many other cultures, like in East Asian cultures, happiness is associated with feelings of calm, peacefulness, and serenity.
And here I was—the American, demanding that happiness arise from big things, despite the world (and myself) experiencing gigantically terrible and enormously horrible big things.
During the interview, Tsai said, “how people define happiness depends on what emotions they value. And this is part of a larger literature that just shows that the meaning of happiness depends on what a culture values.” It got me thinking about my happiness and what I valued. I was chasing happiness — running after it but always losing the race. It was always just ahead of me, and whenever I was about to reach out and grab it, it would bound ahead again after I’d been confronted with more grim news that would cause me to slow down, stuck in the mud with grief.
I was chasing happiness, but a version of it that I had been socialized to demand and expect— the happiness of big things and big feelings. Perhaps, in this time, I only needed to look for joy in the little things and moments of peace and serenity. The quiet moments. The calm and the routine. The things that I’ve often overlooked as mundane, rather than joyful in their sweet simplicity.
These things weren’t running away from me, after all. They were hiding in plain sight.
So here I am, trying to reframe my ideas of happiness, looking at the little things that have brought me joy — both momentary and lasting — during the pandemic. I am trying to pay closer attention and give credit where it is due. I‘m working on allowing myself feelings of joy in moments of calm, rather than allowing my joy to be felt only during moments of excitement and exhilaration.
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When I say I’ve found joy in the little things, I mean that quite literally. The little things have shed light on otherwise dark times.
Things like finding a tiny baby praying mantis, no bigger than my fingertip, on my basil plant. Or watching my partner play sounds of Blue Jay calls from his phone and watching the little local Jays respond in disbelief at a funny looking intruder. The night where the first two little blossoms on my evening primrose bloomed in all their glory. The microscopically little yeast and bacteria that provide me with sourdough and kombucha and lacto-fermented veggies. The tiny propagated cactuses and succulents on my windowsill that get incrementally bigger day-by-day. The little breezes from the open window while I work during the day. The new tiny leaf unfurling on my Scindapsus pictus, otherwise known as a satin pothos. The little mushrooms I find on my walks in the woods. My joy is a response to these little, tiny, sometimes invisible-to-my-naked-eye things.
I’ve also found joy in slowing down and taking my time.
Baking bread takes time — sometimes days depending on how tangy I want my sourdough to be. I’ve found that stepping away from work or other activities to go through the therapeutic motions of stretching and folding my dough or to check on the proof helps me to tune in to the passing of time, rather than looking down at the clock on my computer screen every day only to find it’s already 5:12 p.m. I’ve waited days or months for plants to grow and bloom, looking after them with love and affection, talking to them, tenderly touching their stems and leaves, protecting them from pests, giving them water in the morning and evenings on the hot summer days where they’ve baked away in the sun. I’ve gone for long walks and bike rides, sometimes with no destination in mind, but rather just to be with myself and get some fresh air — or sometimes to treat myself to an ice cream.
I’ve found joy in stories.
While I often read a lot of nonfiction, I’ve found myself more frequently being drawn back into my old loves — science fiction and fantasy — during the pandemic. I’ve turned to stories written by folks who have often been marginalized — women and LGBTQ folks and People of Color. Their stories make me feel seen and understood. The worlds spread out before me. The stories provide me with an escape from the real world and yet also serve as companions who guide me in deep dives into my own real world struggles. Their characters seem to struggle with things that I, too, struggle with — loss, confusion, loneliness, anxiety. But these characters find ways to resolve their struggles, to overcome, to find joy. And as any true hero knows, they can’t do it on their own. It takes a village, and the village is filled with magic, and friends, and funny creatures.
I’ve found joy in the local outdoors.
While most of my days are spent in my home office, working from home, in June I was furloughed part-time and found myself with wide-open Fridays. At first, I was devastated. The thought of having a day every single week with nothing to do made me sick to my stomach and physically ache with anxiety. But I found that in the extra time I had an opportunity to reach out to a good friend and talk about our pandemic protocols and boundaries, before agreeing to go rock climbing at a nearby local crag every week. We couldn’t climb indoors at gyms, but we could go outside on a weekday when there would be almost no one else around — whether because of the heat or other folks’ work schedules. We used the time to do what we loved — be outside, get sweaty, touch rock and earth, and find a rhythm and confidence in our bodies as we navigated routes.
I’ve found joy in my routines.
Routines give me something to look forward to each morning, afternoon, and evening. Following the initial shutdowns, I told myself after the first couple weeks of wallowing at home that I’d at least get up and make my bed and put on semi-real pants before logging into work on my laptop. I think I needed the first couple of weeks to wallow. Sometimes wallowing is what I need. But as the weeks dragged on, I knew that much of my joy comes from structure and routine. So I committed to making my bed. And putting on pants. I eat a breakfast of yogurt, fruit, and granola every morning — because a full belly means a joyful start to my day. I drink coffee from my French Press until around noon. I set alarms on my phone to jolt me out of work, so that I can stretch my legs throughout the afternoon. I cook meals for me and my partner on Mondays. I check in with my “Stitch N’ Bitch” group on Tuesday evenings. I plan phone calls to friends on Thursdays. I climb at a local outdoor crag on Fridays when it’s devoid of other climbers save for me and my partner. These routines have kept me sane. They’ve helped me feel like I have structure, and that structure brings me joy. I don’t have to go chasing after it either, because my routines are daily constants that I get to delight in, so long as each morning I make the decision to put one pant leg on, followed by the other.
These joys of the little things, of slowing down, of stories, of the outdoors, of routine and simplicity, are sustaining me through the pandemic. I just wasn’t paying attention and giving them what they were due. Instead of being grateful for the serenity and peace these things were bringing into my otherwise chaotic feeling life, I was overlooking them and instead still believing that happiness could only come from big things.
These little things are helping me mitigate my often overwhelming sense of anxiety. They’re giving me something to wake up for every day and providing me something to care for. They’re keeping me focused when all I want to do is break down because how is it fair that mom gets cancer and the family dog dies in the midst of the biggest global health crisis in a century?
It’s not fair.
But I wasn’t promised fair. None of us are.
And so instead of trying to find fairness and big things type-happiness in this strange new world, you’ll find me looking for joy in whatever ways I can — in green leaves, in sourdough yeast, in deep breaths, and good stories.