Happy 2022 my friends…or has it been? For me, it has been exhausting navigating the sudden flipping science to the changes in COVID protocols, the high transmissibility of Omicron, and the continuous erasure of chronically ill and disabled folks as part of the narrative. Yet, or perhaps “and”, all of this leads me to thinking about joy. Because through all this, I have still felt joy.
I recently finished reading Disability Visibility edited by Alice Wong. (Please read this, especially if you’re able-bodied. Disabled folks work tirelessly to advocate for themselves, and they are typically erased in the process.) This book made me rethink responsibility, accountability, and my commitments - concepts I believe are liberatory. This book of essays from a wide variety of intersections of disability, race, gender, and sexuality not only addresses disability erasure and lack of access, it includes commentaries that discuss what joy looks like for disabled folks. One essay expresses the joys of someone unable to communicate “I love you” to their partner but still feeling the love between them in all the ways. Another narrates an astronomer losing vision, no longer able to see stars but discovering a way to hear them - they describe the challenges AND wonder of this transition. I also recently read What Doesn’t Kill You by Tessa Miller, her memoir of living with Crohn’s disease, where, at the end, she interviews folks who have chronic illness and asks them what brings them joy, even on their hardest days fighting an oppressive healthcare system.
And, as you may remember, I ran a challenge for December called 30 Days of Joy where people shared their joy for 30 days - what I loved most about this were the ordinary joys people found: seeing a bird, taking a walk, looking at flowers, petting a furry friend. And it made me think about how even in COVID times, joy exists.
I recently listened to Luis Mojica’s interview with Meenadchi “Non-Violent Communication Through The Somatic Lens” on his podcast Holistic Life Navigation. Here, Meenadchi talks about joy being “a very expansive experience that can hold all emotions, I think of joy…as like…a sense of bliss that doesn’t bypass life, it allows for all experiences.” This description of joy BLEW. ME. AWAY.
Joy doesn’t bypass life? What a beautiful, holistic concept! Hearing this swept me to flashbacks of memories: driving around with my unemotional father, not saying a word to each other; a moment of laughter with my abusive ex-husband; the moment my father died; asking for a divorce.
Every time I don’t untie my shoelaces, I think of my dad who would get annoyed that I’d just forcefully stuff my feet in my shoes. JOY. I can feel so sad about how I never felt like I knew him AND I can laugh each time I put my shoes on (and I do!).
On a trip to New York City where my then husband yelled at me at a brunch spot in front of my best friend, we also had a blast singing and dancing with other friends on a different night. JOY. You might ask, how can I say that when he was abusive? Because I wouldn’t have stayed with him if there wasn’t joy. I cannot deny the joy I experienced being with him as much as I don’t deny the trauma and abuse. It does not excuse it, it simply observes it.
After listening to this episode, the first thought I had was: “maybe we can reframe resilience and connect it with joy.” Last year, I wrote an essay about how we can’t talk about resilience without talking about trauma. So often the narrative of resilience mirrors that of defying all odds and “winning” at life, inadvertently shaming those who can’t meet those expectations. This completely dismisses those who, often due to systemic oppression and violence, don’t fit that “winning” mold. And this is why I am even more enamored with joy—joy doesn’t ask you to win, it asks you to remember. It says, “Things were hard and things were beautiful, sometimes at the same time.”
I don’t want to block out the times I wished my dad offered me more emotion or the eight years I was partnered with my ex-husband because these experiences gave me so much: I cultivated friendships, musical tastes, memorable evenings, emotional intelligence, and silent understandings that live in my heart forever.
I credit my ex-husband for helping me become a parallel parking queen, introducing me to incredible humans I still speak to today, and sharing musical concepts I never would have discovered on my own. When I think of these things I smile and I’m proud.
I credit my dad for teaching me to ride a bike, making sure I was financially literate, and fixing the exposed light switch that sliced my hand in our laundry room. These all came out of love, the way he best knew how to show me.
The fact is, if you look closely, joy is usually part of the story. Now I understand how access to this joy holds compassion for the people who didn’t give me what I needed. To me, this joy is whole and nuanced and complex and painful, just like life.
Because, let’s be real, there’s no “winning” at life. A healthy long-term relationship, perfect health, or massive wealth do not define anything except for how society benefits these statuses and, as a result, what we make them to mean.
Joy transcends colonization, patriarchy, the military industrial complex, voter suppression, neoliberalism, and worker exploitation. Joy transcends the resulting intergenerational trauma from all of this. Joy is certainly not an antidote to these issues, as Angela Davis’ book Freedom is a Constant Struggle reminds us. But we can remember joy in a way that doesn’t bypass the very reason we strive for healing and liberation, the very reason we fight.
We move through this life WITH the pain we experience—not instead of it, not in spite of it, not forgetting it. This pain transmutes as time passes, as we heal, as we grow, and as we forgive ourselves. Radical joy is the resilience that honors our full and messy stories, especially the stories of those who are silenced, erased, and marginalized.
How can you reframe joy and resilience for yourself or your community today?