Perhaps it’s an odd time to be thinking about joy. Coming to the end of a weary and uncertain year, maybe it would be more appropriate to talk about resilience and coping. But I’m beginning to think that the best antidote to life’s chaos is joy.
Even in easier times, the value of joy is underestimated. Among the busyness of everyday life, the importance of our own happiness easily gets buried under all the things that need to be done just to keep the plates spinning, and to ensure that everyone else is happy. Our own joy becomes fragile, a wistful daydream we go to whilst tending other people’s needs, or just a guiltily-snatched hour here and there. For a long time in my life I worked in a way that frequently left me depleted and stressed, and prioritising anything of my own felt uncomfortable. It wasn’t really until we took our children out of school and embraced a new lifestyle that I saw how little sense that made for anyone in the family. I’ve spent several years now following my children’s natural rhythms, and letting those rhythms slowly undo all the things that had tied me up in knots. Unschooling (living in collaboration and without formal learning) invites us to keep unravelling the knots. It starts with school, moves onto parenting, then slowly permeates everything – the way we work, play and eat, the way our communities are organised, the way we take care of each other, what makes us happy. It starts as a sneaking suspicion and finally takes solid root. And we realise that there is an awful lot more to life and happiness than we had been led to believe. Society and the status quo are not always right. Joy is undervalued. And yet, it’s as essential to the human experience as fear and sadness. That deep sense of connection and wellbeing we feel when we tap into simple, life-affirming happiness is part of a complex system. It isn’t just about happiness – the dopamine and serotonin we release help us manage stress and boost our immunity. Whichever way you look at it, joy is not an optional extra.
Perhaps the most important realisation in all of this is that the way I live my life will be one of my children’s most important lessons. And there is no fooling my children. And so, if I hope for my children to lead lives in which they place a high value on authentic happiness, then I have no option but to try to do that myself.
I recently started sea swimming with a wonderful group of women. There’s some irony in beginning to sea swim in the UK, after 25 years living by the Mediterranean, but there we go. Last Saturday morning, while everyone else in the house was still asleep, I snuck out for an early swim. It was grey and drizzly, and as we approached the beach it started to rain, a face-stinging horizontal rain that seemed determined to drive us back to the warmth of our cars. The sea was rough and foamy and we were searching for excuses to quit when we saw a couple of others in our group on the beach and getting ready to go in. The rain stopped and we stripped to our swimming costumes and braved the waters. The sea was too rough to swim, so we jumped in the waves, laughing like children, worries washed away by the chill water and the beauty of shared experience. Pure, exhilarating, life-affirming joy. The absolutely meaningful in the apparently meaningless.
It reminded me of a period of my life in Barcelona when, every Saturday morning I would go to a Zen dojo to meditate. The session started at 7.30am on the dot, and getting there involved a walk, a short train ride up the coast and another walk. All of this meant that I had to get up at 6am every Saturday, no matter how late my Friday night was. For a part of the year, my journey coincided with the sunrise, so I would sit on the train still sleepy, watching the sun rise over the Mediterranean. Later, in the dojo, sitting silently on my mat, fixing my eyes on the white wall in front of me, I was often struck by how odd this was. To come all this way to sit still. Early on a Saturday morning. But I would invariably leave feeling relaxed, joyful and absolutely in tune with some rarely-stirred part of myself. On my way home everything was more vivid to me, and so I would stop to buy fruit at the market, or pause to breathe in the sea air, enjoying this peaceful vitality I had tapped into by sitting still and looking at a wall.
Just like after a morning swim, the day’s course would be profoundly changed by my early morning endeavours. I would have more energy and patience, and be easily able to find happiness in the smaller details of life. The things that really matter. And so, the things I do for me, naturally and unintentionally, become the things I do for everyone. I’m sure my children tire of me preaching the wonders of sea swimming and meditation. But I also know that they see the joy these and other things bring me and understand why they’re essential to me. And I imagine that they will always look for the things that are essential to them too. I swam yesterday morning too. Later, perhaps to help forget about Covid-19, lockdowns and politics, I suggested to my daughter that we sort her room out. At some point she must have got bored as she quietly disappeared, so I put the radio on and spent ten minutes sorting things out by myself. Still with the buzz of all those happy hormones in my body, I found myself transfixed by the details of her room. Her toy horses neatly lined up, each with a bridle and reins painstakingly crafted out of string and hair bands. The book she was reading at bedtime, the corner of a page turned down marking just one chapter to go. Her make up bag spilling glittery nail polish and lip balm, right next to a baby doll, lovingly tucked in to bed. I was struck by how this space was so intensely and beautifully hers. I wondered at all the times I have powered efficiently through this room, throwing toys in baskets and slotting books back on shelves, and entirely missed its magic. I was reminded by a quote I came across the other day by the Irish poet, W. B. Yeats. “The world is full of magical things, waiting for our senses to grow sharp”. Indeed! It is certainly harder to find the magical things right now, but they’re still there. And it is far easier to spot them when we have touched into whatever brings us joy. If we want our children to also be able to notice all the magical things the world has to offer, then among the chaos, the uncertainty and the weariness, spending some time guiltlessly pursuing our own joy is a wise thing to do. Esther Jones writes about unschooling and conscious parenting on her blog, A Place on a Hill.