My earliest memory is the cry of gulls. I was two years old, and my family took a vacation to the Gulf Coast. One day we took a tour aboard the double-decker boat shown above. I recall standing in the shade of the lower deck, looking out at the ocean and hearing birds making loud, wild cries that filled me with longing. I had to get up to the top deck to see them.
My oldest sister led the way up the ladder. I remember emerging from the shadows onto this bright orange deck that glistened in the sun. And I remember the bright blue cloudless sky. And I especially remember the gulls, soaring, floating, wheeling, with dazzling white wings and haunting cries.
Looking back, I know this was when my spiritual journey began. In those haunting cries was a mystery, and I have been drawn to it all of my life. In addition, I felt connected with something that made me feel fully alive. That zest for life, I know now, is the definition of joy.
The gift of joy in children
It comes easily to children. Many years later, when my own youngest son was two or three, I went outside with him on the first beautiful day of spring. The sky was blue, and a breeze out of the southwest carried warm air into our neighborhood. Suddenly, Andrew began running in circles, arms stretched out, eyes bright with joy. “I have energy!” he shouted. ” Call the police!”
Something happens as we grow up that leads many of us to stop noticing the things that used to bring joy. Or, if we do notice, to keep them at arm’s length. It’s as if we sense that society approves of joy only in children. As if joy is somehow irrational, and therefore not worthy of adult minds.
The opposite of joy is apathy
But joy is a natural response to intense awareness. A society that disapproves of joy cannot be fully alive. People who hold themselves at arm’s length from deep awareness cannot experience zest for life. They can fully live neither their happiness nor their sadness. Joyful people are aware of what is going on inside them and around them. They laugh easily, and they cry easily.
The opposite of joy isn’t sorrow. It’s apathy. And a society that inhibits deep joy-causing awareness produces soul-sucking apathy.
The good news is that you have the ability to nurture joy in your own life. The antidote is all around you. Just go outside and pay attention.
When children taught my class about joy
One fall semester I was outside with my Nature and Culture class, discussing one of our readings on the lawn next to a little strip of woods. It was October, and a few steps away along the edge of the woods was a layer of dry leaves that recently had fallen. As it happened, a class of little children from a nearby school came hiking past us. Every one of those children veered from their route so that they could walk right through those leaves. They laughed with joy as they kicked, listening to the sounds of the leaves and watching them fly.
I turned to my class. My students were still watching the children, and smiling.
“Those little children taught you more today than I have,” I said. “They have reminded you how to feel alive again.”
Joy isn’t something to grow out of. You can’t be fully alive without it. Nor can you be fully yourself. If you’ve lost it, though, you can recover it. You know how. But if you still have doubts, just watch the little children. They’ll show you. When it comes to joy, they’re experts.
Photo: I’m the Buddha in the red hat, meditating on the cries of gulls after a period of running excitedly around the deck. April, 1960, near Biloxi, MS.
This post on joy belongs to the blue portion of the singing wilderness spiritual map.