How I Learned to Embrace My Joy

I only recently discovered what it means to embrace joy.

I say only because I'm nearly 33 and joy is so subjective so why in Zeus' name couldn't I figure out how to embrace the thing that is entirely mine, separate from the influence of others? And what on earth was I doing before that?

It's not as though I had been embracing the opposite of joy, like I was embracing hate or anguish or sadness or misshapen gummy bears that look like Hitler mustaches.

It's not as though I had been actively avoiding joy altogether. I didn't know what it meant. I didn't know how to fit it into my life. I didn't think it had a place. I didn't think it deserved a place. After all, I'm a privileged human with ALL THE THINGS.

So, it's not like that. I suppose my joy discovery starts like this:

Doc finds a tumor in mom's eyeball.

Her phone call to me shortly thereafter unfolds in the manner appropriately and socially predetermined for these types of conversations. The steps are as follows:

A) I have a tumor.

B) ...

C) ALL THE FEELS, CRIES, WHY OH WHY IS THIS HAPPENING

I remember her crying and telling me that she doesn't want to die. You see, the doctor made it evident that this was a "rare" tumor that can spread its cancerous fecundity into mom's wine pouch (i.e., her liver). I remember her saying that she was too young. I remember her sadness, intimating a longing for the complete, wholehearted, unabashed love she never quite received during her marriage.

I remember telling myself, both in my head and out of it, that I needed to refrain from allowing my imagination to take over. It didn't work. Those walls crumbled and the irrational, emotionally-wrought, imaginative splendor of my brain took control by building the sappiest, most dramatic scenario possible. I mean like Terms of Endearment-level sap. You know how that goes: Mom gets cancer. She has two weeks to live so she decides to do all of the things she has always wanted to do but doesn't get to because in fact she has one week to live and the doctor is a liar and she's too weak to go anywhere but lie in bed and wearingly grumble I love you into the ears of her sons and daughters while the eldest son can't take it any longer and sets sail (he has somehow learned how to sail during his grief) into the deep sea only to be eaten by the Sharks That Feed On Sadness (STFOSs) and mom dies shortly thereafter, heartbroken, alone, weeping.

Dumb, right? You know this. Our minds tend to break down when we are met with something that challenges our emotional fortitude.

Following that initial conversation with mom, things have improved and she's in good spirits. She's losing her eye, and she'll need to get check-ups for cancer every year but she's not dying.

She's just Calamity Jane. You know, without the belligerance and tobacco-chewing.

So that happened, which represents an important first step in what I'm going to call my joy journey. Don't hate. The second step of the joy journey went like this:

I learned that someone very close to me would never be the same again.

I think of our time together when we were younger and worry about how I contributed to it. I worry about his physiological and psychological makeup and whether or not he can find his place again in this world. I want him to not be scared or frustrated or sad. I want him to be positive and think ahead and not fret about what has happened in the past. I want him to focus on himself and not the worries and concerns and thoughts of others. I want him to know I care. I want to go back in time, back to the place of baseball cards and skateboards and shenanigans.

But I know my wants are just my way of expressing the need to control. And control is a poopface. Control is a thing we do when we feel helpless. It's a thing that really doesn't do much of anything but make you fret over the fact that it's mostly out of your capacity.

I am working on it. I am working on relinquishing the snapshot of our lives before this. I am expressing my care in a way that isn't mired in self pity and anxiety. I am coming to terms with the idea that he has to be the one to make choices.

And I am hopeful that he will.

Learning to not be the octopus; or at least be a more cautious octopus.

I watched Short Term 12 recently. It's an excellent, genuine, sweet, and profound little film. I highly recommend it. There's a scene in the film (minor SPOILER coming) in which one of the foster kids expresses her thoughts and feelings about her father in the only way she knows how: through a story about an octopus.

In the story, the octopus, in want of friendship, befriends a shark. But only on the condition that the shark can eat one of the octopus' arms. With eight arms, the octopus thinks it is no big deal. The octopus has seven capable arms after all. So the octopus befriends the shark. As the days pass, the shark continues to express its hunger and the octopus continues to oblige until, naturally, the shark eats the octopus whole.

The shark, of course, is this character's father. She's the octopus. I was a weepy mess during this scene (and throughout most of the movie). It resonated so deeply.

Which brings me to the last step in my joy journey: my father.

The octopus and shark story is really quite a perfect analogy for my relationship with my father. As the octopus, I was just hurt too much. With each heartbreak, with each abuse, I lost an arm. With each deceit and sociopathic burst, there went an arm. With each tyrannical bite of his lip, an arm loosened itself from my body. As his egomaniacal reign persisted, my octopus body was harmed.

I felt like I needed to do something. I felt like I needed to take a stand against him, like I am some sort of revolutionary or brave warrior. As my wonderfully perceptive wife Jessica reminded me recently, I felt like I needed to punish him; make him see that what he's doing and what he's done is not right and will not be forgotten. I felt it was my duty as the "sensitive, empathetic guy." Because even though holding onto it was this consistent pain, it was somehow important and valid that I remain steadfast in my mental, emotional, geographical opposition.

For years I told myself that it's not my fight. That I'm holding onto this thing I have no control over. That I'm waging war against a foe who isn't present and isn't aware there's a war going on in the first place. And yet I held my ground.

And yes, I know this frame of thinking is poppycock. It's deluded. It's emotionally disturbed. But it just felt like it had to be done.

That is until I found a way to let go (let it goooo).

Seesaws are definitely joyful good times.

Seesaws are definitely joyful good times.

How I learned to embrace my joy.

Joy is an amorphous thing. As I said before, it's unique to each of us. But no matter what joy means to you, I believe that joy can only be achieved with the following things:

  1. LOVING PEOPLE. We like to think we're independent. And that's a good thing. But the reality is that we need people. We are creatures that need love and support and community. We need each other. And I need Jessica. I need mom and my brothers and sister and parents-in-law and sisters-in-law and brothers-in-law and nephews and nieces. I need my friends. I need them for the love that they give me and the reminder that I am not alone in this world. I need them for the reminder that joy can be gleaned in the smallest of moments. I need them for the reminder that joy can be shared.
  2. GIVING A BOOT TO CONTROL. Yes, control is a problem. We all do it. The problem is that we try to control the things in our life that we have no control over. They are simply out of our hands. Like mom's tumor, changes in people whom I love, and my father's choices. I have no more control over these things than I do over the weather. But understanding that (I did, believe it or not, long ago) is one thing. Actively letting go of that control in your brainy brain is another thing.
  3. HONESTY. As humans, we're good at lying. But we're best at lying to ourselves. I know this well. You're being a good son, Non. It's your burden to carry. You deserve that. This ice cream will not only make your tummy feel better it will give you all the powers. You see what I mean.
  4. YOLO, DUDE. YOLO is silly. At least in the dude-bro way it's been conceptualized. But at its core it is so essential. You know why? Because I do believe we only live once. And while we're here, why not immerse ourselves in the things that maximize joy, make us better humans, impact the world in a positive way? Which, for me, includes things like reading and learning new things and being curious and hiking with pups and trying to dance like Gene Kelly and galloping horses and nerding out on movies and engaging with people and building connections and challenging myself and Joy Sandwich giggles and sharing books and asking questions and consuming licorice and so many other things. Do the things that matter to you. Don't get caught up in the things that don't.

All of this may seem easier said than practiced. Of course it is. I'm not here to say it's easy. It's a challenge, surely. But, before all the years of anguish and misplaced martyrdom and control and the time my heart nearly stopped, I was out of the joy race altogether. There was no challenge to be had.

So, I'm happy to have the challenge. I'm also happy to know that, if I do it right, the challenge will weaken over time. I'm happy to know that if the control and anxiety surfaces again, I have people around who love and support me. I also have dogs.

That's my joy journey. It's ongoing. But I think I'm in a better place now.

Embrace your joy, everyone.

Twitter: @SubjectPlusVerb Subscribe to my joyful podcast: Joy Sandwich