“Can We Afford Joy in a World of Suffering?”
by James Baraz
"Let's face it: it's pretty bad out there. Financial worries. Powerful people ruled by greed and self-interest. Distrust and outright hatred because those who are different seem threatening. A planet, since the beginning of time providing us with indescribable richness and beauty, now so out of whack that our main task may be figuring out how to survive. It's not a picture that fills the heart with hope and inspiration. And yet it's a world still filled with goodness, love, compassion, natural splendor, delight and joy. Dare we let ourselves feel those things that uplift our spirit and make us feel all warm and fuzzy inside? Would we risk going into a dream state of complacency, thinking everything's going to be all right only to wake up and find it's too late and we blew it?
When people hear that I teach an online course called Awakening Joy, they sometimes respond with skepticism. Although they may long for it, the idea of letting themselves actually feel joy in times like these seems a bit frivolous and self-indulgent. As one skeptic commented, it sounds like being in La-La Land singing "Kumbaya" while the world around us is on fire. I've dubbed this the Kumbaya Factor, and it's one of the main justifications people give to keep themselves from opening to genuine well-being.
I use the word joy to describe all the flavors of well-being that uplift us and help us feel whole - from happiness and delight to contentment and inner peace. These feelings are the healthy states that we naturally experience when our hearts are open. Qualities such as kindness, generosity, gratitude, compassion, and inspiration all touch us in ways that make us feel connected and alive. They are doorways to true happiness and can be activated by tuning into the goodness of life around us and inside us. But what value, beyond a few moments of escape, can come from allowing our hearts to feel joy by looking for the good?
We're hard-wired to be influenced by others around us. Neuroscience tells us that we all have "mirror neurons" in our brains that light up in resonance, affected by others' experience. If you see someone stub their toe, you will likely wince in response. In fact, the same area of the brain will become activated as if it happened directly to you. When you see another person anxious or afraid, feelings of agitation are likely to arise. Watching actors in a drama or comedy, we can viscerally experience the full range of emotions projected on the screen. Whether hope or despair, we are wired up for empathy.
The problem with despair is that it saps our energy. Have you ever had thoughts like, "What's the point? It's all going down the tubes. People are too short-sighted to trade in immediate comfort for a longer-term greater good." But this line of thinking not only keeps us from acting, the cynicism is contagious. It deflates the potential response of others, too. Rabbi Michael Lerner has pointed out that cynics are really frustrated idealists. They've been disappointed too many times and have traded in their inspiring vision for a more "sophisticated" worldview that protects them from additional hurt.
On the other hand, when we see someone perform heroically or act with wholehearted commitment for a noble cause, we ourselves become inspired. Jonathan Haidt, Harvard professor of psychology, calls this feeling of uplift and inspiration the "Elevation Response." Triggered by acts of virtue, "it causes warm, open feelings ... in the chest; and it motivates people to behave more virtuously themselves." That's why we pay $10 for a movie ticket to root for the hero or heroine as he or she saves the day. We love to be inspired. And with inspiration comes a magical feeling, a positive energy that wants to make a difference and can actually awaken that feeling in others around us.
Howard Zinn, the great historian whose "A People's History of the United States" did not gloss over the shadow of our nation's development, wrote about the importance of looking for the goodness and beauty in life. In his essay "The Optimism of Uncertainty," he wrote: “An optimist isn't necessarily a blithe, slightly sappy whistler in the dark of our time. To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places - and there are so many - where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction.”
I recently read Bill McKibben's brilliant book "Eaarth," and it had a profound effect on me. McKibben describes in a matter-of-fact way how our lives will likely change as our planet adjusts to global warming. I found myself at times overwhelmed as I took in the information and let myself imagine where we're headed. It was very sobering, even for someone who's a relative optimist. I wondered what it will take for people to shake off partisan politics, narrow-minded "us vs. them" worldviews, to wake up and realize that we're all in this together. It seems that often people don't change their habits until they are forced to do so out of fear. Then they do it kicking and screaming. But McKibben does something extraordinary in the second half of his book. He shows the reader how these inevitable paradigm changes will ultimately necessitate some fundamentally healthy new ways of living our lives based on mutual cooperation and a shared caring for the planet. As I read his vision, I felt my energy slowly return, and with it my determination to want to make a difference.
Looking for goodness in ourselves, in others and in life is so vitally important in these times. Seeing what is good and noble about humanity helps us connect with our joy and aliveness. That natural joy and love of life helps remind others to stay connected with that perspective as well. We remember how good it feels to bring out the best in those around us and make this a better world. And we become positive agents of change, not because we have our heads in the sand, but because life is too precious and miraculous not to want to do everything we can to let our love and goodness shine through and be a force for healing the world. So can we afford joy in a world of suffering? I believe, in a world of suffering, we can't afford not to find joy."