‘Joy’ is a word rarely used. Or a word regularly traded for ‘happy’. If you get picky about their meaning and definitions, joy describes something more soulful than happy. Happiness is more about the gratification that we feel from all the pleasure-giving activities we take part in, from meals out to parties, visits to events or theme parks, time with family or friends. Happiness tends to be externally triggered by other people, things, places, thoughts and events. Joy is a deeper more enduring feeling that comes when we make peace with who, why and how we are.
Behind the smiles of modern living I often read other emotions. I sense sadness or helplessness in people’s eyes; and fear, frustration or anger at what seems unfathomable or unjust. I see brave fronts or hardened exteriors. Rather than spew up all the confusion, fear or uncertainty that exists on the inside, it seems best to put the lid on and crack on with things. Some have got so good at pushing all the mush back down that they’re not even conscious it’s there anymore. Only the occasional fumarole seeps out; the frustration in the post office queue that made them grumpy with the lovely lady there, intolerance of the colleague at work who’s been annoying again, the nth visit back to the fridge to finish off the chocolate bar they swore they wouldn’t open…and then the guilt. “Why do I keep behaving like this?” we may ask ourselves, suffering the effects of our meta-emotions; the emotions about our emotions. Guilt about being angry. Frustration at self for over-indulging. The scars of unresolved experiences can bed in deep, affecting the way we feel and behave each day.
There is one place I’ve travelled where many people’s smiles felt genuinely real. Their eyes shone brighter. Their smiles seemed wider. They felt joyful, and yet it seems on the surface they have many reasons not to be.
A cycle adventure through the Simien Mountains of Ethiopia taught me something about joy and resilience
A collar of cold beer bottles is draped around my burning neck. A bucket of ice on my chest is a welcome thief, stealing heat from the fire that rages in me. I toss and sweat, images of the week flashing between bouts of fever: early morning starts, pedaling in moonlight to steal kilometres before the rise of the burning sun, men with Kalashnikovs trekking the road, cliffs rising into endless blue skies, the fuel of strong sweet coffee, the children…
They shout “Yu, Yu, Yu!!!” as they run and giggle alongside us, chasing faster as we pedal harder. Their excited eyes and toothy smiles exude energy. They look catalogue cool with their funky hairstyles: intricately dyed braids and zany patterns shaved into their hair. Shops and cities are far from the yawn of the giant landscape that surrounds us, and so I’m surprised by how cool the kids appear. They are bold and bright, not timid or worn. They look strong and healthy, not weak or starved. They do not want our pens or our food. They just want to run. They have attitude, perhaps born of the resilience that living in the high lands of Ethiopia demands.
We are riding the roof of Africa, through the Semien mountains. The distant sight of our bikes stirs the children and young teenagers to run. It seems like a genetically wired impulse. We watch their lithe frames sprint from the horizon towards us, diverting from their route to school or work in the fields. After only days of pedaling at altitude and in 47 celcius, we feel gnawed and scorched despite the luxuries of suncream. But they smile and run, run, run. They run beside us. They run with us. Asking for nothing. Wanting for nothing. Just laughing.
I am used to children that stand with their parents as I ride on by, point at my curious handbike and shout “I want one of those!” They show no sign of fun or laughter.
Her eyes look up at me, bigger and brighter than any so far. I offer her an orange, and some biscuits, our recovery food after many hot, steep kilometres of pedaling. She seems unsure if she should accept, shy with our one to one encounter. I see myself through her eyes. Perhaps a strange sight; fair skinned, blonde and in a wheelchair, riding a weird looking bike contraption through the midst of the mountains, her village, her home. She eats it. And I feel reluctant to say goodbye, but I am wilting. It is time for the comfort of our air conditioned van and to be whisked to a soft bed. I am sure she doesn’t have one, and that makes it harder to leave too.
The long days cycling through the parched, otherworldly volcanic terrain and its bacterial inhabitants has grounded me to bed and fever. Tossing in the damp sheets, I think of her eyes, and of the kids cheering: “Yu, Yu, Yu”. I see their smiles, their joyful faces, and I imagine them cheering me better, back to the road.
I could pontificate about resilience. About how life not being ‘easy’ shifts the focus from materialism and allows us to experience more of what matters. But I think this short story says it all. Wherever I have travelled in the world, those with less seem more joyful. Less seems more. In simplicity lies inner gold that we could spend a lifetime failing to find if pursuing some of the ‘western’ definitions of a successful life. Perhaps we have all discovered some of this within lockdown.
In the words of Bhutan’s Prime Minister, Jigme Y. Thinley, a country where Gross Domestic Happiness (I might argue Joy!) is more important than the financial marker of GDP. “…It is about how we, as a species, must live within the bounds of what nature can provide. Sustainable development is not a choice. It is an absolute necessity.” The good news is that it is not too late. Each and every person has the power to move toward greater well-being on all levels. You can make a difference in your own life and actually be the difference for someone else.
Maybe we can all make a difference by working to feel more ALIVE…and joyful (get ready for a potentially helpful or possibly annoying acronym I invented)…if we pay more attention to our ATTENTION and where we are putting it; to LOVE and INSPIRATION and how we give and receive them; to what we VALUE – what really matters to us; and on cultivating ELEVATED EMOTIONS like freedom, gratitude, love and joy.
More of this ALIVE stuff will hopefully turn us back into the child within, running excitedly through life and all its wonders like the kids in the Ethiopian mountains. Surely we can replace some of the happiness with joy.