The Radical Act of Choosing Joy in Dark Times

The Radical Act of Choosing Joy in Dark Times

This article first appeared in Happify.

Nothing has impacted us at a global level the way the pandemic has. Collectively, and personally, it has beaten down on us with a relentlessness that still has no end in sight. Now. eight months in, many of us are experiencing “pandemic fatigue,” the leaden weight of helplessness, hopelessness, and depression. Lately, I find myself getting lost in the monotony of everyday life. I sit speechless with clients living through the black fog of grief. I hold my children close as they sob for the dreams that keep slipping through their fingers.

We’re tired. We’re spent. And we’re stuck. None of our old tricks for snapping out of a funk and getting back to life are working. Change routine. Tick. Learn something new. Done. Pursue an old hobby. Tried. We don’t have the energy, and many of us don’t have the time, either.

Giving ourselves grace and accepting that we won’t always feel inspired or happy is not an option, either, even though grace has historically been one of my greatest saviors in moments of distress. These days, it simply turns my inner weather into an endless season of cloudscape. We need something a little more uplifting to get by through the darts that keep on coming. We need something radical.

A few weeks ago, I made a commitment that has been fuelling my dwindling inner resources. In small but sure ways, it’s helping me re-engage in life from a more solid footing. Even as the world swirls in every direction, I’m feeling grounded in what’s true now, and always has been.

I decided to choose joy.

It may sound trite, or even inconsiderate given what we’re living through, but what I’m learning every day is that it’s our only choice. More and more, science is uncovering what contemplative traditions have known all along: Pain is our common humanity. We cannot run away from it. Nor can we fight against it. We’ve tried, and all we’ve gotten in return is more suffering. It’s what the Buddha called the “second darts” we throw ourselves:

I shouldn’t feel this way.

Life is so unfair.

I wish things would go back to how they were.

The only way we can deal with the blows of life is to hold them, along with all the little joys that surround us. It puts things into perspective. It makes us feel less victimized. And it helps us do what’s needed, instead of scrambling to do something from a place of fear or restlessness.

You’ll be surprised how many little joys we find when we make a conscious effort to notice them. The puppy in his purple sweater running pudgily behind his master. The little girl in pigtails, zooming by on her bicycle, rainbow tassels flying in the wind. The orange ladybird, rushing intentionally up your window rail, living in the moment because it knows no other way.

It reminds me of Jane Hirshfield’s poem “The Weighing”:

So few grains of happiness
measured against all the dark
and still the scales balance.

Life hides these little grains of happiness in every nook and cranny. Unlike pain, they’re not loud. They don’t thunder in through our doors or down our chimneys. They wait silently for our loving gaze to land on them. And when it does, they come alive. And lift us in the process.

The reality is that we’re standing at a threshold. Our hunter-gatherer brains are struggling to deal with the challenges before us. They’re wired to scan our environment for the bad, and to want to run away from it. But when there’s chaos and uncertainty all around, we need a new strategy. We need a different wiring.

By choosing joy again and again, we can rewire our brains. It’s our most powerful antidote to helplessness and despair, and the vote we cast for ourselves and for our humanity.

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