Thankfully, spring is now upon us. The leaves that we raked and cleared away last autumn lay idly in small piles and rows at the edges of our properties. The brilliant red, orange, and yellow colors of last fall’s leaves have long since faded to a dark, almost colorless shade of brown or grey. And these leaves have been slowly decomposing within the soil beneath them throughout the winter. It all represents a ‘death’ of sorts, I suppose. But its irony is that this ‘death’ brings new life—quietly and invisibly by nourishing the ground for spring. For much has actually been going on under the surface of things while the soil appeared to simply sleep during these past winter months.
Joy is a lot like that, I imagine. But we throw the word ‘joy’ around with an almost casual indifference to its true meaning at times. We carelessly fuse it with other words, such as happiness, pleasure, enjoyment, elation, and cheerfulness, to name a few. And we prescribe myriad benefits to these supposedly similar words in our daily lives: greater energy, calmness, openness, and even spirituality. Those are good outcomes, to be sure, whatever the source they may stem from. But joy is not the same as happiness. Nor is it the same as pleasure. Further, joy facilitates profound spiritual outcomes that other ‘like’ emotions simply cannot. As such, we confuse true joyfulness with ancillary notions to our own detriment.
For those other things are impermanent, contingent, dependent, unsteady, and perhaps even unrealistic. What’s more, they imply taking an action on our part, as if we need to do something in order to keep all the happiness going. Or they demand our constant vigilance and protectiveness. In order to stop external negativity, setbacks, stress, losses, or disorder from creeping into our lives. You know, ruining our good times. Using my opening seasonal analogy, it’s as if we have to desperately and tightly hang onto the branches of the tree… lest our green leaves wither and fall to the ground as a source of happiness that is somehow lost.
Here’s the thing, though. True joyfulness is far more inclusive than happiness. Joy transcends happiness. In fact, it’s possible to have the former without the latter. For joy works beneath the surface, ever-nurturing the soil. Even on the coldest, darkest, and unhappiest days of our lives. It does so if we’ll cultivate this joy each and every day. Yes, we all have a part to play here. We cultivate joy when we take time to actively use our senses. To utilize our sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste. We cultivate joy when we regularly pause or stop– then take a deep breath. When we get outside our heads for a change. Get out of our homes. Go outside. Take a short walk, even on the coldest days of winter in order to seek a new and different perspective.
That’s not all. We cultivate joy when we practice thanks and gratitude, even in situations where it’s difficult and challenging. We cultivate joy when we work to release our hurts each day. When we affirm ourselves and affirm others as inherently worthy. When we pray and meditate. When we stay close to God. When we come to peace with the many unknowns, uncertainties, and unsolvable mysteries of our earthy existences. When we plan less and trust more. When we surround ourselves and surround others with love. Lots and lots and lots of love.
All these things cultivate joyfulness. But perhaps nothing does so more than simplifying our respective lives. Living ‘less large’, if you know what I mean. For ‘smaller’ can be ‘larger’ as joyfulness goes. Think deeply about a recent, wonderful day that you’ve experienced. It may have entailed nothing more than sitting outside. When you watched the brilliance of a clear, star-lit night. Or gazed upon a field of wild flowers as they literally danced to the music of a summer’s breeze. Or when you cherished a bowl of delicious cold ice cream on a hot day. Or hugged someone whom you loved. Or listened to the infectious laughter of children as they ran and played.
Then ask yourself this: How much did these truly special times of joyfulness really cost you? How complicated was it to experience the resultant deep and lasting joy? How much advance planning did these experiences really require? How much stress and worry were involved? And what did you actually ‘accomplish’ in the act of feeling so joyful? I suspect that the profound joy that you experienced actually cost you very little. It probably required relatively little planning. It involved little sacrifice on your part. Instead, these experiences were far more about your ‘being’ fully in the moment as you enjoyed the sheer wonder of simplicity entailed in them.
Further, you experienced this joy within the context of your own routines, limitations, and even your sufferings. Perhaps in spite of those things. Most importantly, though, the best part of the joy you enjoyed came from the ‘inside out’. It came from within your heart, even if you seemingly experienced things outwardly. And because of this inward centering, your joy won’t ever leave you. It remains with you. Even if it’s invisible to the naked eye. Like the leaves that lay beneath the ground’s surface during our previous winter months, true joyfulness continues to quietly, but powerfully, work ‘inside’. It works to nurture your spirit and your soul. To bring new life when winter finally turns to spring. Which is now. Which is truly hopeful. Which is truly joyful.