Introduction: Solutions and Joy
You don’t have to look very far to find someone who’ll say that the point of life is to have fun. I think I was first conscious of fun as a sought-for end all, be all, when I was a kid, because that was the world—and a goal of that world—in which I was regularly ensconced.
What do kids do? They do a lot more than they're generally given credit for—kids are skilled teachers, for example—but there’s a premium emphasis on fun. It comes with the territory of their ever-increasing, and child-like, vastness.
Children are sensitive and smart. They want to grow. They pull the world into themselves. They extend themselves into the world. And they crave fun.
When you’re a kid, you go over your friend's house to have fun there. You look forward to going in part based on how much fun you expect to have, and of course how much you like your friend and what your friend means to you. But you wouldn’t wish to go just for “quality time.” Abounding fun is the stuff.
Trying to have that fun is of paramount theoretical importance for a child. You want to be well-behaved so that there isn't anything that precludes your chances for partaking of this fun. No timeouts in your bedroom, waiting for life—and fun—to start again. And if other people are having fun around you, you definitely don’t want to miss out on it. That stings.
The way that surprise usually works is there's an initial reaction to being surprised that makes that first flash of the surprise as potent as the surprise ever gets. Surprise is determined in large part by the moment in which it occurs. It doesn’t have superlative staying power.
Then time does what time does. It passes. What was so surprising becomes a part of the fabric of reality, an experience that we've had. The initial surprise wears off, and whatever the experience had been becomes familiar. Another thing in a line of things.
Looking back on that initial moment, what happened might not now seem so very surprising at all. It can retroactively appear to be the logical result of a number of factors and choices. We may think, “Should have seen that coming.”
People who make the claim that the point of life is to have fun have paradoxically surprised me more in time, though. They're adults, so there's that. Actually, I've never heard or read where a child made this claim. It's only been people who are decades into their lives.
My surprise can move into the realm of shock, as I process who is saying what and the context. I'm floored. I grapple with logistical improbabilities. For instance, when this remark is made there's a heavy stress on the singular. Not "a point." The point. The big one. The point of points. The remark resonates as decree. A holy summation of grand design.
But it's said with such confidence, as if God, or some higher power, or the magic genie of the cosmos—I don't know what's out there—tipped off this particular person at a boozy brunch, having let a little too much slip out—gotten gabby, as it were—but it's cool, pass the word, if you like.
There's an informality to this decree of total, unstinting, unswerving knowledge. Casual omniscience. Which a lot of people just happen to have, we’re led to think. If you're not one of them means you're getting stranded behind. We’re left to face a corollary implication of, "How can you not know that? Duh!" The corollary implication also translates to, “See you, sucker! You don’t have a stuffed-to-the-gills-with-happiness life like I do and boy are you missing out! You just don’t get it!”
I picture an adult at a backyard summer cookout. One of many from that summer. A weekend wouldn't go by without such a gathering, as if there was a cookout quota, some straining to find the ultimate, good-timey summer day, with the wine and the middle-aged friends having come over yet again.
It’s same people, talking the same way, about the same things as the weekend before. But everyone has their health, the kids have so many extracurriculars, there’s that trip to Paris next month to look forward to, and all of the resulting pictures that can adorn the shimmering halls of social media.
There is forced—which is to say, hollow—gusto in the conversation. Everything is just a little flat, and each of these afternoons feels like the honoring of an obligation.
But something might click. Robust fun may yet be had. In theory.
It’d help if there isn’t another not-so-very-interesting and definitely not fresh exchange about the new micro-brewery in town, or what the proximate football team might do come the fall, or how one of the kids are coming along with their oboe lessons.
Then a kid who has been inside, thinking and thinking hard, writing in her journal, comes outside to ask her father if they might talk later.
He recognizes that look. It won't be an easy conversation. Definitely won't be fun.
It could be that she's taking the wrong approach, he considers. They were just about to get a game of horseshoes going, he informs the girl. She should play, the dad says. Perhaps that makes the non-fun cloud, situation, approach—whatever it most qualifies as—go away. Matters may resolve themselves.
After all, the point of life is to have fun, as we’re so often advised with increasing insistence in an age where we’re more apt to work from home, a driving work ethic and goal of maximum production are seen as negatives rather than positives, and little in life is looked forward to with the same happy fervor of a vacation. Don’t sweat the small stuff we’re told, and then reminded, before another breath is taken, that it’s all small stuff. Is it? So a lot of repositioning is involved to get a person’s sights lined up with that target goal of fun. And tweaking of attitudes. Worldviews. You just have to be aware of fun’s central role. And have options. Get those priorities in order.
The more that people try to assert something as a given, as if it needed no further commentary or exploration, the less they're usually telling you that they know, and also that they doubt what they're saying, and very much fear that not only isn't it true, but they have no idea what is.
Then they might say something quite vacuous and wrong. They may repeat it hoping it turns into a self-fulfilling wish that pays out. You don’t have to go to the other side of the rainbow to land the gold; just wish the gold into existence. It’s an approach to life that won’t net you the price of a cup of coffee.
Not the most effective recipe to living tolerably, let alone living well. But many of us exist within a disaster zone largely of our own making, no matter how hard we try and sell a storyline to the contrary. Which isn’t to absolve life—its valleys are real and unavoidable. We will be in them, in time.
Life is a master landscape architect that way, no matter how efficient a route of travel you think you’ve created across its land mass. That’s fine. You can’t get mad at life itself. Just as a person has to be true to themselves, so does life have to be true to life. You can’t ask anything else of it.
The idea of fun is part of a larger concept, and that concept is happiness. “Fun” is just kind of the affordable version. Cotton candy and a sunset. Half-price bleacher seats on Labor Day. What we call the simple things. Happiness is the ladder, the framework; fun is the stuff of rungs.
Suggest that happiness is not the point of life, and you may be deemed villainous or a masochist. A misanthrope. A cross old so-and-so. An embittered castoff. A pitiable wretch. A troll.
Happiness implies health. A rich form of wellness that the soul itself has to be in on. Happiness is the opposite of depression, which as a word and concept has come to mean more in our world than at any time previously.
Depression is not that far from death. Actual death, as in suicide, and also of dying while living. A life of no fun, of constant pain, a battle of getting through today to go through the same soul-draining war tomorrow.
A lack of happiness also implies a lack of meaning, a lack of purpose. If you’re not happy, you’ve screwed up, you don’t realize what’s truly important.
It’s a mean-spirited insinuation—or outright statement—that’s meant to put someone else down so that the person making the remark can elevate themselves, which is a false and fruitless elevation. They’re probably not very happy at all.
For someone who admits of struggling—and is brave enough to be honest with themselves—purpose then gets defined by an absence of options, if you’re not careful.
If the purpose of life is to be happy and have fun, and you’re not happy and having fun, then your life has no purpose. One option remains: to overcome the depression, and start determining how to achieve that happiness.
But people often get happiness wrong. We should all want it. We should all do what we can to find it, and help others find it. Climb that ladder.
There’s something much bigger than happiness, though, which is what this book is about, and you don’t hear people talking about it that much. There certainly aren’t books of fiction about it and what it can do. When it does get brought up, it’s usually loosely and incorrectly, as some synonym for glee, which isn’t a big deal. Glee is passing.
That thing is joy. That force is joy. That uniting agent is joy. That purpose-bestowing power is joy.
Joy and happiness are not the same. If one isn’t happy—or not happy yet—one can still be infused with joy.
One can be depressed and not know how to start getting through the new day, and still know and foster joy.
Joy transcends what life can do as life. What life will do as life. Joy is the light that reaches the bottoms of valleys. And it is also the sun seen from the top of the mountain.
Joy is a lot of things simultaneously. It’s purpose. Vision. Passion for that which matters. Attending on that which matters. It is the soul of endurance. It is learning to be oriented to that which matters. It is in the self-recognition of being oriented that way. Of being that way. And being outwardly active in that way, too.
Take the example of the cookout. The father feels for his child. She’s being picked on at school. Or the girl who used to be her best friend since as early as she could remember is not her best friend anymore. She’s not a friend at all. No efforts to rekindle that friendship have been effective. The friendship is just over. Or it’s over for the foreseeable future.
Will talking about this on a Sunday night before another early Monday morning and an irritating week at work dealing with an officious boss be fun? Probably not.
Will it be a happy fifteen minutes? After all, there’s your kid in pain. She’s confused. Life is doing what life does. Closure will be hard to come by. Sometimes—often—closure is accepting something because it must be accepted on account that it happened, which is not the same as accepting it because you understand why it happened.
But the dad can sit in his child’s room after the guests have gone, having gently, but demonstrably, found the words to end the day early and send everyone either home or back in the house.
He pulls up a chair to the bed. He may share an anecdote about a friend he had at her age. He can make some self-deprecating joke that is dorky and all of that, which produces a smile, even as the pain remains undiminished.
He imparts knowledge. He shows understanding. He helps, even if that help doesn’t bear results in that exact moment.
The assistance we most need in life is often time-delayed. We get it when we get it, when someone has the affection and grace to help us get it—or to give it to us—but it may be a year later, a decade later, who knows how long, until we’re ready and that assistance is able to tangibly manifest itself in our lives, in who we have become and are becoming.
People have been this way for the dad. His daughter has been this way and maybe she hasn’t known it because she’s a kid and that’s not how she thinks of herself or of him. Now is a good time to tell her. So he does. She realizes something about herself that she hadn’t know before. What else might there be?
The talk concludes. There’s a natural end to the most important exchanges. It’s time to let words settle.
He kisses his daughter’s forehead, makes his way downstairs to have a nightcap of Scotch, encounters his wife having returned from another portion of the house where a different child was tended to.
She asks how it went, as the man goes to the fridge and grabs a bottled water instead.
“I think it went pretty well,” he answers her. She knows what this means because she knows him, and he knows that.
This is joy.
It’s not the only form of joy. Joy has plenty of room within it for happiness. But joy is also its own entity. If life has a higher power that exists potentially at all levels while also being no higher—and thus reachable—than the head of a baby, it is joy.
You can have joy without happiness. You can’t have true happiness without real joy.
Joy can be cultivated. Sought. Learned. Modeled. Strode towards. It inspires. It helps a person keep going. It helps a person get better at the going. It brings people together. It deepens connection. Joy is about doing the right thing. Joy exists in one person, so as to help with the fostering of joy in another person. Joy is for the passing on.
Joy facilitates endurance. Joy is neighborly. Joy looks out for others. Joy comes from thinking about a greater good first and acting for that good when one can. Joy involves asking, examining. Joy is central to acceptance. Joy isn’t the walk in nature in and of itself; it is understanding what that walk can be, what it holds, why the taking of it bolsters, transforms, imparts. Salves. Reveals. Reminds. Teaches about understanding.
Joy is relentless, because it needs to be.
Joy is simpler things, too. It's when you were cut from the team one year and you came back and made the squad the next and scored a game-winning goal. Joy can be the best fun you’ve ever had. The layers of laughter behind the audible laughter.
Joy is big and joy is small, because joy is joy, and it has no single size or accession of sizes.
But joy is always significant. Joy is a bridge. Joy is constantly surprising and forever undiminished in how it surprises because it wields such influence at the level of who a person is. Those stores of surprise don’t deplete. They teem inside an individual, and in the people with whom that joy is shared. By how one form of joy helps grow another form of joy.
I suggested that kids are better at more things than they’re typically given credit for. Kids are good at joy. There’s curiosity involved with joy. A desire to know. It’s an openness to how one views the world.
A lot of times we’re not surprised because we don’t allow ourselves to be open to the possibility of wonder. The adults who do this best are the adults who never lost certain qualities they had when they were a child. The vastness kept expanding.
I see so much fiction—especially now—where the writers of that fiction think that for anything to possess significance, it has to be mopey and miserable (and is almost always narcissistic and life-starved). This is "serious writing."
In reality, they don't write with joy, and they don't know the power of joy. They're not really writing to reach anyone. They're doing it just because. And anything you're doing just because probably isn't worth you doing it.
What is it for? Who are you trying to reach? Whom are you helping? Entertaining? Making happy? Touching? Whose life are you adding to? Why conflate miserableness for the sake of miserableness—and by default a “proper” seriousness—with depth?
I don't see the point. Joy always has a point. Joy isn't always easy. That's how rarefied joy is, how complicated it can be in its myriad forms. You have to think about how it works, but you know it when you feel it, what brought it on, what is keeping it around.
There is nothing in our world like joy. It is the solution, in its joyous way, to all of the world's problems, if we understand it, seek it, share it, look after others with its saving grace.
This is a book about that joy and the solutions it brings. It contains stories of joy, in various representations, grades, idioms, stages. Stories that testify on joy’s behalf. Present joy. Reach out with joy. Suggest how joy can be located. Make a gift of joy.
That doesn’t mean real life isn’t here, nor abundant, because it is. There’s nothing lachrymose or melodramatic about joy. It’s simply too important to allow for such things.
I don't think there's been a book like this book. I haven't seen it, so I made this one, because I believe that book should exist.
It’s a book for children and for adults. It’s a book for adults who retain the child within. It’s for adults to read to their children. And for children to read to their adults. I hope it reaches you with all of the joy with which it is intended.
I now leave you with a very special eight-year-old girl named Amara to get us started. May you go forth with her in joy, and may it help us all.