JOY (to you and me)

I just finished reading Zadie Smith’s essay titled “Joy” in October 25th’s The New York Review of Books. Throughout, she explores the differences and distinctions between feelings of “joy “and “pleasure.”

What a unexpected gift, reading this essay. Although the world has been rather bleak of late, Smith reminds us that joy, as personal experience, can be recaptured in all its meaningfulness and depth through memory.

During this season, the hymn “Joy to the World” looms large. We know in our hearts that the entire world will never feel joy all at one time — it’s impossible — yet, we cannot stop ourselves from wishing it so.

Smith generously drops a few clues in the course of her essay, to  help us recapture our joy:

— Where there is no discernment there can be no awareness of expertise or gratitude for special effort.

— Occasionally the child, too, is a pleasure, though mostly she is a joy, which means in fact she gives us not much pleasure at all, but rather that strange admixture of terror, pain, and delight that I have come to recognize as joy, and now must find some way to live with daily.

…once one is “in” joy—…the experiencing subject has somehow “entered” the emotion, and disappeared. I “have” pleasure, it is a feeling I want to experience and own. A beach holiday is a pleasure. A new dress is a pleasure. But on that dance floor I was joy, or some small piece of joy, with all these other hundreds of people who were also a part of joy.

Recollections of joy in my own life began drifting into my mind as I read on. Joy, though somewhat fleeting, I’ve discovered has legs. And true joy — the deeply satisfying emotionality of it — lingers expectantly in our distant memory, waiting for us to conjure it.

So these are the experiences that came back to me:

  • Hearing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony preformed live for the first time. It was in Carnegie Hall. The orchestra was the Chicago Symphony.  This masterful piece of music, if you don’t know it, culminates with his famous “Ode to Joy” (as performed in the video above). But it’s hearing the symphony in its entirety, experiencing the build up and then deliverance of the “Ode,” which sets the stage for deep joy.



  • The one and only time I tried cocaine, back in the late 70’s. It was at a party. One snort and I was euphoric. It lasted quite a while. Recognizing its power over me, however, I told  myself: Don’t ever do this again.  I didn’t.


  •  Dancing is always very “pleasurable” for me, but, on this one occasion, dancing was utter joy. Lost in the music of a local band, dancing to a fast merengue in a hotel lounge in Santo Domingo, I was the only non-Domincan in the room. A crowd gathered around to watch. As soon as the music stopped, the room burst into applause. It was amazing!


  •  Gazing down at Spiderwoman Rock in stunning Canyon de Chelly (Hopi territory, eastern Arizona). I have never, and probably never will again, experience that kind of silence. A distant tap-tap-tap of a woodpecker against a Pinon tree was the only audible sound. I felt completely “at one” with the world and so peaceful.


I don’t believe a joyful experience can be replicated. That is to say, I don’t believe you can return to a place where you once experienced true joy and recapture what you felt. (I know, because I’ve tried it — well, except for the cocaine).

But the remembrance of that joy is forever lodged in your memory. Calling it up is a gift you can give to yourself again and again.

Going forward, I suppose a wise goal, then, is to create new experiences of joy in your life. Remain cognizant. Live life up close and personal, without so many filters.

H-m-m…sounds like a new year’s resolution to me.

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