The Subversive Power of Joy

paucal
Photo credit: Paucal
sub·ver·sive
/səbˈvərsiv/ – adjective: seeking or intended to subvert an established system or institution.
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The last little over a month has been tough for us in the US, hasn’t it?  I remind myself, though, that this COVID-19 epidemic has been stretching thin the lives of millions of people around the world for much longer than it has ours. I’m, so far, one of the privileged ones who still has a job, whose family is healthy, who has a close network of loved ones and dear friends who check in on me daily, and who is well cuddled by two cats and a dog who seem to sense the crisis we’re in and insist on more snuggle time with me at day’s end.

I’m sure that I am no different from everyone else when I say that I’m bewildered by this whole pandemic.  The logic adds up in my head about how it could arrive and throw us into absolute turmoil, yet COVID’s unexpected entrance didn’t seem to give us enough time to prepare and ground ourselves for what it was bringing with it. I daily get that odd sense of, “What if this is just a really extended weird dream, a Ground-hog Day-ish kind of experience, and tomorrow I’ll wake up and things will be completely back to normal?” But then I wake up, after sleeping in ridiculously late because suddenly I can on many days of the week, and we’re still here in the same place of isolation and uncertainty.

There is so much fear, tension, and irritability that is present around us right now.  But, as someone who is an apocalyptomist ( a word Facebook recently fashioned that fits my personality pretty well sometimes – where I believe shit is going to hit the fan and yet everything will somehow still turn out OK), I simply refuse to throw in the towel and give in to despair, even when I look at the data and it feels like the most realistic option.  I choose to find joy wherever I can, whenever I can.  And I’m learning more and more, especially now, that sometimes joy doesn’t look or necessarily feel like you would expect. It can only be found when you’re watching for it, and when you, at a gut level, believe that it wants to be found.  Joy is subversive, because it has the power to completely change a situation from the inside out, unexpectedly. It can take the most bitter of moments and transform them into something that may still be painful, but can no longer overwhelm us.

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Last night, twenty minutes before shift change, I slipped into the room of a patient of mine who was dying, to see if the last dose of morphine I had given was lessening their air hunger and to see if they were comfortable.  I was tired, as every nurse is at the end of shift, even more so these days because of the emotional and mental fatigue that happens with constantly changing policies, wondering if we’re doing good enough at infection prevention, and constantly watching the patient assignment board to see how full or empty our unit has become.

My patient was breathing rapidly, shallowly…but peacefully. I pulled up a chair next to the bed, slumped into it, and sat, just breathing with them, until it was time to go give report to the night shift nurses.  It blows my mind,  that time after time when I sit with a dying person, how I feel like I received a gift in some way.  Like….who am I to be able to witness the closing of the curtain on the hours of this one person who has never existed before and will never exists exactly like this again?  It’s similar in a way, I think, to when a baby is born, and you’re in awe at the miracle of life and wondering what kind of life this little one will lead, and what they will experience.  Sitting with the dying…I usually have no clue what kind of life they led.  I don’t always know if they were a kind person, or a bitter person, an over-achiever or someone content with an average life. I don’t know if they ever felt seen, heard, or were well-loved.  But there is the gravitas of knowing that they were a small bit of divinity incarnated for the briefest of moments in time, and that their life mattered no matter what form it took. The life finale of everyone should be held carefully and with reverence. I firmly believe this.

Somehow, in these kinds of moments, I am often surprised by joy. Not a happiness that they are dying or leaving behind loved ones.  Not a superficial emotion that suddenly makes me feel like everything is all better. No, it is a deep, gratitude-awe state that I was allowed to be here, now, in this one moment where the life/death veil thins.

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I have belly laughed more in the last month than I have in the previous six months combined, which really says alot because I usually laugh all the time. I have friends on The Facebook who regularly post tremendous content, but everyone has upped their game lately.  One thing that I am particularly enjoying is that so many of the wonderful memes and jokes being posted are entirely irreverent and often over the top, but it’s like people are even more willing at the moment to lay aside their social inhibitions and lay it all out there to soften the blow of the coronavirus with humor.

Even on my unit, when we’re rushing around, hot and sweaty in our personal protective equipment, trying not to think too hard about the fact that the majority of our patients are COVID – positive, I’m amazed at how much I laugh on each shift.  There is nothing better than having hard stops for laughter during crazy days when we’re all tired and frustrated.  It’s the joy that sneaks in with that laughter that has the power to change the mood in a room, to give us all just a little more motivation to push through the day, to pause our griping for just long enough to remind us that we’re in this together.

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“Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how”.  AND “Life is never made unbearable by circumstances, but only by lack of meaning and purpose.”
― Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

I’ve been thinking that the important ways to get through this COVID crisis emotionally intact are to reframe the way we see what is happening, to shift our perspectives, question everything, and fully embrace the silver linings when we find them.  If we can only view COVID as an evil villain that has swooped in and is destroying our way of life and mercilessly killing us, then what else is there for us but to despair and be terrified of when the reaper might also come for us. But, best as I can tell, this is a very myopic way of looking at life, one that is devoid of the understanding of the power that joy can bring into any situation.

I’m a realist most of the time, and I don’t think I’m a Pollyanna.  But I do believe almost everything in life is nuanced, and complex, and can’t be adequately described with simple labels. Although this may sound trite and horrifying to some people, I really don’t think that we can deny that COVID, despite its fury and swift progression, has brought us some real blessings if we choose to look for them. (I will also completely admit that I’m in a more privileged situation than many people, and am not sitting here having to worry about where my next paycheck or groceries are going to come from, or wonder if I”ll have adequate access to medical care despite my race or socioeconomic status. I, in no way, want to minimize the difficult and trying circumstances of others with what I’m writing here. ) Hasn’t it forced us to slow down from our breakneck pace of life?  Hasn’t it forced us to reevaluate our priorities?  Hasn’t it forced us to become very intentional about who we do life with and make us put real effort into finding ways to maintain relationships? Hasn’t it made us stop and look at those around us with a little more compassion and empathy?  Hasn’t it forced us to become the best of our creative selves? Hasn’t it shown us that the world is small, we are a global community, and we must work together if we are going to get through this?

I don’t really understand life.  I’m suspicious of anyone who says they’ve got it figured out.  I don’t REALLY know why we’re here on this spinning ball in a tiny little spiral galaxy amidst billions of other galaxies.  But I am convinced that it does us well to try and find meaning and purpose in what we experience.  For me, this exploring everything I encounter for meaning is a very selfish pursuit…I want to find the joy in everything. This is, for me, what makes life worth living.  And so far, there really haven’t been many places in life where I haven’t been able to find at least a little joy.  The thing is,  joy is abundant when you learn how to find it, when you figure out the secret places it lies hidden in plain sight. Maybe learning to find this joy is part of the task of growing up as a person.

And while I certainly don’t believe God sent us COVID as retribution for anything, there are lessons to be learned from this experience, and maybe we can all collectively grow up a little more as we face the decision to either give up from despair or daily seek joy and meaning, moment by moment.

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Here’s an important fact:  Joy is a function of gratitude.    You can take that one to the bank.

If I’ve learned anything in life, it is that if you can’t be grateful and if you can’t seem to recognize any of the areas where you are blessed or given things that you don’t deserve, then it’ll be really hard to find joy in much.

I’ve referenced this before in a different post, but Ann Vosskamp’s book, One Thousand Gifts, is an excellent primer on learning to record the small things in life you are thankful for. The recognition of all these things, however trivial, have the power to spark joy. It takes practice, but if you look hard enough, you can find things to be thankful for in any situation.  Gratitude is a wildfire; when you change your mindset to focus in on the little things that are good, the little things that make your heart beat a few paces faster, the little things that bring you a sigh of contentment and peace…then everything begins to change and you can spot things you are thankful for everywhere.  And the realization that you carry more thankfulness than you had realized, and that good things exist all around you amidst the struggles….well, that’s joy.

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In a recent On Being podcast, Krista Tippett interviewed the Benedictine monk, Br. David Steindl-Rast. During their talk, he described joy as the “happiness that doesn’t depend on what happens.”

This is exactly why joy has the power to change everything….because it can exist independent of circumstances.  Joy can overthrow the tyranny and fear of institutions and pandemics through its existence as a choice.  Life may seem like absolute hell, but we always have the freedom to find gratitude, and we always have the freedom to seek out joy.  This is where the meaning in life is, and no one can ever take it from us; we can only choose to give those up ourselves.

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“Sorrow prepares you for joy. It violently sweeps everything out of your house, so that new joy can find space to enter. It shakes the yellow leaves from the bough of your heart, so that fresh, green leaves can grow in their place. It pulls up the rotten roots, so that new roots hidden beneath have room to grow. Whatever sorrow shakes from your heart, far better things will take their place.”
― Rumi

Don’t waste this time of sorrow. Don’t come to the end of the COVID pandemic bitter and cynical about life. Let sorrow work its way through you, mourn and grieve what is being lost, and then choose to look up with new eyes to see the new things that are coming. Don’t just think about what is no longer here, what is being taken from you.  Be overjoyed about the new spaces present within you, the new wineskins that are capable of holding big life and fresh joy.

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The following is a song about joy, in my opinion.  It was written as a song about faith, but I’m stretching the boundaries on it. Joy is the subversive power in life that can show us the beautiful, to fill us up again, to help us see everything with new eyes, and to experience a world that is bigger, deeper, and more meaningful than the superficial one we often limit ourselves to.

 

 

Life and Death are Programmed Within: A Brief Reflection on Telomeres and Interdepedence

A few years ago, after just moving to the Boston area, I discovered that the Dalai Lama was going to speak downtown at TD Garden.  I wasn’t very familiar with the city yet or how to get around, but I hopped on a train anyway and made my way up to see him.  Until that time, I had read bits and pieces of his writings and listened to a few short YouTube videos that featured him being interviewed or teaching.

The stadium was packed when I arrived, drawing in crowds from all different backgrounds.  The funny thing is, I hardly remember a thing about what he actually said.  But what I do remember is that he basically made the throngs of people melt.  We sat still and quiet, hanging on to every word that he said, and giggling every time he laughed or made a joke. We didn’t just hear a talk by an amazing religious and political leader; we felt the presence of someone who was joyful, and compassionate and seemed to know something that most of the rest of us didn’t.

I fell in love with the Dalai Lama that day. He’s very high on my “People I desperately want to meet but there is very little chance of that happening in this life, gosh darn it!” bucket list.

I own several books written by the Dalai Lama, and was very excited to read The Book Of Joy, which records conversations between the Dalai Lama and his good friend, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, about what it means to live a joyful life.

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In one particular chapter, the Dalai Lama and Tutu discussed death and how we need to learn to face our own mortality, and the fact that things in life constantly change and cease to exist.  Here’s a short excerpt that caught my attention:

“In fact, as the Buddha reminds us, the very causes that have given rise to something, such as our life, have created the mechanism, or the seed, for that thing’s eventual end. Recognizing this truth is an important part of the contemplation on impermanence.” (p.165)

When I read this sentence, my mind immediately flew to cellular activity and little bits of DNA sequences called telomeres. When I think of telomeres, I envision health status or life remaining gauges that are common in video games.   Telomeres are short nucleotide sequences that “cap” the end of chromosomes in our cells to help keep them from effectively fraying or fusing with nearby chromosomes.  Another analogy here would be to think of those little plastic tips on the ends of shoelaces that hold the threads together to prevent splaying.

 

telomere
Chromosome highlighting telomere sequence

 

Telomeres can be lengthened with a special enzyme called telomerase, which is present during development in fetal tissue or in adult germ cells (think sperm and egg cells), or cancer cells. It is an important component of the “life-giving” cells, the ones that will reproduce and differentiate into new tissues.  In other normal adult cells, telomerase activity is diminished, meaning that telomeres will inevitably erode every time cells divide.  Ultimately then, each time a cell divides, it ages just a bit more.

Eventually, as a telomere shortens after repeated rounds of cell division, it reaches a critical length. This critical length affects a cell’s ability to divide and reproduce.  Certain tissues in our bodies “age” more quickly because of lots of cell division, like our skin and hair.

While telomere length is negatively correlated to aging (as length decreases, aging factors show increased appearance), shortened telomeres are not necessarily the primary cause of aging.  However, studies have shown that individuals with shortened telomeres have increased risk of things like heart disease or infectious disease. If you’re interested in reading a review of the subject, click here.

What I find intriguing about telomeres is how an old Buddhist saying reflects some biological truth.  A telomere is a seed or mechanism that is crucially involved in both life, and death.  Something that is needed for our development and growth (life processes) also inherently seems to program our length of life to some degree. Sure, we may be able to alter the timeframe a bit with lifestyle choices and staying away from copious amounts of radiation and things like that, but as of right now, we get what we get in regard to telomere length.  In other words, our death isn’t something that just “happens” to us because of external causes.  Death is inextricably part of the same processes that bring us life.

This all brings us back to the Dalai Lama and his reminder that all things that come into existence will end, and this is because everything is interdependent.  Nothing exists independently.

We, as Westerners, are often terrified by our mortality, and we do whatever we can to avoid it. But I think we can learn much about what it means to be human by understanding that nothing stays the same forever, and that the dying process is just as natural as living.  The key then, I think, is to learn how to go through both processes with meaning and joy.