Friday, June 14, 2013

Stabs of Joy

When I was a teenager and early on when I was in college, I worked nights and weekends at a bookstore that was in the big mall in our town. I ran the paperback section. At the store I worked at you were allowed to “check out” books to read as long as you brought them back in good condition.  One time my manager, Mike, came to me because he saw me open the locker where I kept my coat.  He said, smiling, “T.S., you are allowed to check out books, but you are not allowed to hoard twenty at a time.”  

Some nights it would be really slow in the store so I would roam around and pick up things that interested me, then stand at the counter and read.  One night I found a book by C.S. Lewis called, Surprised by Joy.  Most people think of C.S. Lewis as just being the guy who wrote the Narnia series, but he was actually a brilliant philosopher and theologian that taught at Oxford University. As a young man he had many argumentative dialogues with Sigmund Freud.  As an older professor he taught along with J.R.R. Tolkien, who wrote The Lord of the Rings, and considered him a close friend.

Surprised by Joy is an unconventional autobiography in that while it does talk about what happened in C.S. Lewis’s life as a young man, it doesn’t much. It mostly talks about his quest to find what he called surprising “stabs of joy.”  In the book it ultimately talks about his conversion from atheism to theism and finally to Christianity.  I identified with the book not so much because of its religious aspects, although later in life that did deeply resonate with me, but mostly it was just because of his quest for joy. 

For most of my life I have tried to figure out what it means to have joy. I was always an anxious young man.  I was worried about everything, all of the time.  If everything in my world was not happening exactly as I thought it should then I could not relax and enjoy my life.  It wasn’t like anything was difficult for me. I was student council president, I always got a good role in school plays, I sang in the concert choir, I had good friends, I dated nice girls…I could just never be happy, because I had some vision and irrational drive that everything could be better.  

That continued throughout most of my life, until I grew up and realized that joy is not something you quest for. It is something you allow to come into your life. If you let go you can find “stabs of joy” in many places, some unexpected, and you appreciate them all the same.

I have had many “stabs of joy” in my life.  The day I met and then married my wife; when each of my children were born; reclaiming my father; accomplishing things I always said I would accomplish, and the list goes on.

As to the unexpected “Stabs of Joy,” there is this. I have lived in my house for seventeen years.  I have a very woody bush in my front yard that is nothing but barren branches in the fall and winter, and full and lush with leaves in the spring and summer.  Ever since I have lived here there has been a family of swallows, and probably their descendants, which have lived in that bush.  They stay there all year around. 

Starting in the spring when I am working in the garage studio I leave the door open.  I’ll until the end of fall when it gets too cold. On days when it is raining and a bit cool, or on days when it is very hot, the swallows come into the garage to visit it me.  Sometimes they just jump skittishly around on the floor, and other times they perch on the shelves and chirp incessantly at me.

You would think I would be annoyed by this, but I actually rather like it.  When my wife is work and my kids are at school, I am alone, which I am not used to being.  It is nice to have the company of the swallows and what has started sounding like music to me.  I’ve started leaving little bowls of food for them in various places around the garage studio, so they feel welcome.   When they decide to visit me, I am always happy.  I feel that “stab of joy.”

I am older now, but I still feel a lot of stabs.  When my wife and the children come home from work and school, scare the swallows out of the garage, and I get to be with them; when my oldest son surprises me and comes out from the city to visit; when I get to see friends or my extended family; when I do some volunteer work; when I finish some project, be it art or writing, that I am particularly pleased with, and especially when I can just sit and watch the rain.  I like those “stabs of joy.”  They help to balance out all the other negative things like bad days at work; unexpected frustrations like cars that won’t work or flooded basements; sad feelings about loved ones who are struggling, are sick, or who have passed…days when you don’t feel well. 

As I said, I have learned that opening yourself up to and taking in joy is not a bad habit, or a bad addiction to possess.

As a coda to this post, let me tell you an interesting thing about C.S. Lewis’s life. Many years after he wrote Surprised by Joy and some time after his wife died, he entered into a random correspondence with a much younger, divorced American poet. He considered her to be his intellectual equal. They eventually met and he fell deeply in love with her.  She came to England to be with him, and they were together until she unfortunately died of cancer.

Ironically, her name was Joy.