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Letting more in when it feels dangerous.

The Risk of Joy

Author and researcher, Brene Brown, wrote: “Joy is one of the most terrifying and difficult emotions we feel as humans.” 
When I first heard this, I almost discounted it. How can joy be terrifying and difficult? Isn’t it something we all want to feel? 
As this new question began to break the rafters of my knowing, I noticed something curious. 

Even though I was generally happy in my life, I noticed how often I would say no to joy. Life would come and ask me to dance, and I wouldn’t budge from my seat. Life would come and fill my bowl with rose water, and I’d push the bowl away. Life would come with the clearing, and I’d continue whacking through the brush. 
Even though I liked joy, something in me didn’t trust it fully. Somewhere inside, joy was irresponsible. Joy was the sweets that got you sick if you had too much. Joy was the people repellant. Joy was the short end of the stick. 
And so, whenever I’d feel joy bursting inside, I’d feel this simultaneous bracing against it. A clamping down against its tidal wave. 

Why was this?
I dug and dug and dug until I hit the taproot of this resistance, for I have learned that what doesn’t get seen continues to bruise you from the inside. 

Looking back, I now see that it had the kindest intent: to give me back what I had forgotten in my years of innocent protection. To break down my door so I could open the door to life.
Poet David Whyte wrote: 

There has been a new visitor in the guesthouse of my mind. As someone who has been hosting these mysterious sojourners for a while, I’ve come to know how to read the signs of what they need. 
Anger needs an ear and a spoonful of honey. Sadness needs something soft draped over its shoulders. Fear needs a crackling fire and a good foot rub. 
But this one was different. It asked me to put down the trays of silverware and tea. It asked me to pull up an easel and paint its portrait, knowing very well that I don’t do such a thing. 
This visitor called herself joy. What could be so hard about it? 
I pulled up the easel and started sketching, starting with its contours. I walked around on creaking floorboards to study its angles, working my way in to fill the shadows. 
As joy grew in dimensionality on my canvas, I began to feel this density arising. Some part of me did not want to finish this painting. 

Breaking the Rafters

My Findings

I know for some, the fear of joy goes hand in hand with the fear of loss. Joy feeds you nice things, only to take them away and leave you in the maw of pain. Like a cruel joke. The fattening before the slaughter. The high that doesn’t take into account the gravity slamming you back down to the ground. 
For me, it was slightly different. I felt resistance to joy, because I felt the fear of breaking open. 
Throughout my life, I have worked hard to build a shelter that protects me from anything that exposes me too much to the scintillating aliveness of life. 
I preferred the watered down feelings. The calibrated thermostat. The quick glances to the penetrating gaze. The hard, the sour, the grit- these felt like more solid ground to build upon. 
Yet, like some annoying neighbor, joy would come careening down with a popping cart and a howl, throwing water balloons at these walls I have built. Greeting my scowls with endless pots of gold. I would want to hold on to my anger, my resentment, my suffering as if they were handlebars for life’s open water. Yet, joy would come in, uncurling my fingers one by one.  

“The only choice we have as we mature is how we inhabit our vulnerability. How we become larger and more courageous and more compassionate through our intimacy with disappearance, our choice is to inhabit vulnerability as generous citizens of loss, robustly and fully, or conversely, as misers and complainers, reluctant and fearful, always at the gates of existence, but never bravely and completely attempting to enter, never wanting to risk ourselves, never walking fully through the door.” 

Vulnerability is the doorway to life. Vulnerability is the blooming, the bursting forth. Vulnerability is the letting go of the handle and the wade into deep open water. 
Vulnerability is when you allow life to touch you skin to skin. 
And yes, sometimes this touch is the stinging burn and bite of grievous loss. This is usually put as “the price to pay” for the vibrant awe that comes when you allow joy to seep in. But I don’t see this pain as a “price to pay” anymore. I see it as part of the mysterious unfolding, woven by the weft and warp of a benevolent love. It deserves to be held and marveled at too. 
And so, when joy visits now, I let it burst me open, like the way a mother’s amniotic sac bursts open, like the way a flower bursts open. I don’t treat joy as a guilty pleasure anymore, but as the wellspring of my day. I stand here, soaked from head to toe in life’s absurd goodness, busted at the seams and leaking, saying thank you. More please and thank you. 

We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure, but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless⁣ furnace of this world.⁣⁣
-Jack Gilbert⁣⁣

The Journal

The Journal

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