Citizen, Father, Human, Husband

Choosing joy, when looking for joy is harder

When it’s harder than ever to choose joy, we risk accepting its absence. That can become a self-fulfilling prophecy of joyless days. We may fuel a vicious cycle dragging us further and further away from joy.

But, when we make the effort to look for joy, we increase our chances of breaking our self-inflicted prisons and creating a virtuous cycle that builds off of positive reinforcement.

Sure, there’s no guarantee it’ll be successful. But when choosing joy is harder? Not looking for joy at all guarantees failure.

My previous post (“How are we to live?“) was at the start of the pandemic, when the world was just entering a lockdown period for what was hoped to be no more than a month or two of measures to disrupt the pandemic’s spread. Some five months later, the list of macro-level and personal problems has grown to unimagined levels. Those problems have propagated anxiety, depression, health issues and complications, concern for the country’s future, uncomfortable conversations, no-right-answer choices, and a general malaise. In the U.S. and other countries, the confluence of civil unrest, a pandemic, economic woes, and existential threats to safety and security have made choosing joy harder than it’s been for a generation.

The result is like a scene out of a fantasy novel, where the hero with the cursed helm/ring/necklace struggles against overwhelming fear and dread to fight for what’s right. It’s so easy to meekly accept the darkness and idly pin our hopes on being saved. Someone will fix our problems for us, right? The world will get better… we just have to wait. And so we wait. And wait. And the darkness consumes us, bit by bit.

To wait for joy is to play the victim. It’s to passively give up agency and bet that an uncaring world will care, or that others will rescue you. It’s to pass up the opportunity to take more control of your reality — a real shame, because even trying to take control makes you feel better, and abdicating it just brings more tears.

Paradoxically, there’s joy in looking for joy. So even if you don’t find it… you do. At least a little.

Husband, Musician

Admiration for amateurs

Sometimes we’ll see a next-door-neighbor type everyman doing something — for their job, as a hobby, in an instructional video¬† — and think, “That’s easy, I could do that.” Or even, “They’re screwing that up; I’d be much better.” Entire TV series and YouTube channels, from gameshows to reality shows, are partially based on this concept. Can you believe he didn’t solve the puzzle? Why did she make that terrible decision? I wouldn’t screw that up!

But sometimes, you see someone you know accomplishing something, and you think, “Whoa. I could never¬†do that.”

Like your wife painstakingly detailing the frets and strings on the guitar-shaped cookies that she’s making for the Rock of Ages middle school musical bake sale, “just because” she’s learned how to do it now and it’s fun.

Or your son, casually recording himself playing a portion of a complicated solo marimba piece that he’s working on. “Is this for an audition or something?” Nope – it’s just the next challenge for him and he wants to learn how to do it to get better.

We all know we’re good at a lot of things, from the career-defining to the trivial. And we can appreciate when “professionals” catch their Super Bowl footballs, sing their Met operas, bake their British Baking Show cakes, and otherwise perform at a high 99th percentile level that gets them on those fields, stages, and programs.

But there’s joy in admiring that mastery up close and personal, where you can see it developing iteration after iteration, and truly appreciate the work that it takes to get there.

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C Major Musser etude on Epic sauce rosewood

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Father, Husband

Leaving the birds in the nest

There’s an important joy corollary (joy-ollary?) to baby birds peeking out of the nest and then them coming back into the nest to snuggle. It’s being able to leave them in the nest.

When our kids are young and first mobile, we spend most of our time keeping an eye on them, because they don’t know enough about the world to take care of themselves. Every stray Lego, every staircase, every pullable tablecloth is a hazard that they can discover through experience or through coaching — and we’d prefer to coach them than to take them to the emergency room.

As they grow older and more self-sufficient, we struggle with the helicoptering. Can we leave them at home for 5 minutes for a run to the pharmacy? Can we give them time on the Internet without supervising every video and website? Can we trust them to be home alone all evening? The ponderables pile higher and higher. The answers require trying and holding our breath.

But as parents’ kids pass hurdle after hurdle, the parents discover new joys. The joys of going out on a date night. Of not puzzling over the logistics of which parent will be Home In Time. Of realizing that Finding a Competent and Available Babysitter has been downgraded from a major crisis to No Longer a Thing to Worry About. It’s the joy of reclaimed time for ourselves. Being able to leave the birds in the nest while we go grab a worm for a few hours is a joy unto itself.

 

Father, Husband, Son

Baby bird peeking out of the nest

The first sleepover. The first sleep-away camp. The second. The third.

As a parent, one can’t deny the fear and dread that comes with seeing your child taking on some measures of independence. There’s something about them walking away for that bus ride, for that camp registration desk, for that assigned cabin, that makes ever parent want to run over and hug them tight. Parent brains can come up with the worst extreme case answers to “what could go wrong.”

But the fear and dread gets overshadowed by pride and joy. Pride that your son or daughter has reached this milestone. Pride that they can function on their own, and be trusted to make decisions and take care of themselves. Joy that they’ve found new friends, new hobbies, new passions for life that they’ll pursue. Joy at their joy.

It’s a far cry from our original duties of keeping a constant eye on a walking toddler who’s exploring a dangerous world of sharp corners, hot stoves, small inedible objects, and gravity. But it’s a welcome one. And it makes you appreciate your own forays out of the nest long ago.

Keep peeking out of the nest, little birdies, because we know you’ll spread your wings and fly some day… but not forget where the nest is.

Father, Husband, Son

Family laughter around the TV

It’s surprising these days how much active fun can be had by getting the family together in front of the television.

Growing up, we’d gather around the TV to watch favorite weekly sitcoms together. Even though some of the jokes went over the heads of us kids, enough landed for us all to share the experience of doubling over with laughter from a good one.

Back then, as it often is now, screen time usually translates to “vegetation” down time. Brain off. Go away, and leave me here to drool. Many an hour has been lost to insultingly dumb shows, solo Xbox/PS/Nintendo gaming, or a diversion on a pocket screen. That’s a fake joy of stasis that can wear off quickly. Unless… you’re not watching alone, and you’ve got something good to watch. Then the equation changes.

First of all, the amount of streaming content available now – be it favorite classic movies like Naked Gun or Airplane!, or binge-watchable fun shows like The Good Place – means that the family can experience (or re-experience) great entertainment. We’re no longer trapped to the NBC Thursday night lineup. We can find good things to watch together.

Then there’s multiplayer video games. “Super” Nintendo games like Mario Party, Smash Bros, or Mario Kart get the whole room engaged. And, Jackbox has a bunch of hilarious party games (Quiplash, Drawful, Patently Stupid, to name a few) that have players doubled over with laughter at what friends (or kids!) in the room come up with. It’s astonishing how many evenings were livened up by a quick electronic game on the big screen.

There’s joy in shared experiences for any family… even if together in front of the TV.