Kim from time to time wonders if I am happy. I am, most of the time, but as a New Englander with a Canadian father, I am not very good at showing it. I don’t laugh much, preferring to make others smile. I’m not a life of the party because I don’t go to parties. Our idea of a dinner party is sitting at the table with another couple, where Kim has taken the trouble to make the meal and the table itself special. My job is to buy, open and pour the wine.
But happiness is not really the point. Let’s make a distinction between happiness and joy. Happiness is shallow and temporary – what you feel when you go to Disneyland, win at solitaire, eat a good piece of pie, or get laid. All good things, to be sure. Ambrose Bierce defined happiness as “an agreeable sensation arising from contemplating the misery of another,” and while I would not go that far, I do note that the word derives from the Middle English word for luck or chance, and it’s related to pleasure. I think we can live more deeply.
Joy, as I’m using the word, is that deeper quality of living. It’s also a pleasure, but a pleasure of connection. While getting laid might make you happy, making love brings you joy, and if you don’t know the difference, or how to express love, too bad for your partner. Sharing in the suffering of others – friends or strangers – creates a joy that explains the spiritual and psychological benefit of giving. We can feel a joyful connection when standing alone at the edge of the ocean, feeling it’s comforting immensity, an “otherness” that you can hear and smell and feel and see.
When do I feel this joy?
I am with Kim at Sweetwater Wetlands Park. She is photographing birds, and I am carrying my camera but mainly listening to the cries and calls and squawks and croaks with the late afternoon sunlight warming the grasses and the water. Kim, who is thirty yards away and peering intently through her viewfinder, shares this moment with me, though she is not aware of the sharing.
It’s late (for us!) at night, and we are on the couch watching something from Netflix, and suddenly Kim’s pillow is on my lap and then her head is on the pillow and she says, “I’m just going to rest my eyes for a bit,” and I stroke her hair and then feel for the muscle spasms in her back.
I’m typing addresses on the Christmas cards that Kim made. I am, in a small way, part of the artistic process of Kim, and at the same time I’m feeling a momentary spark of connection with each name and address that I type. It’s a small joy, but a joy nonetheless.
When I was working at Starbucks a man in his 30s responded to my “How’s your day going?” by saying “Not so well. My wife asked me for a divorce, I lost my job, and I may never see my daughter again.” He opened his laptop and showed me a picture of his little girl. I turned from the cash register where I had been taking orders, asked my manager to take the register for a few minutes, poured the guy a free drink and sat down with him at a table for about 10 minutes of man-to-man advice (e.g., get a good lawyer, spend undivided quality time with your daughter, don’t burn bridges where you used to work). He was grateful for the attention and encouragement. About a month later he reappeared in the store and introduced me to his daughter. He’d landed a new job, and our Starbucks became his “office” for several hours a day. We never mentioned our conversation. We didn’t have to.
This was a joyous experience for me, yes, because I was being a Good Guy, but mainly because I knew I was working deeply and seriously, beyond happiness.