I live within five miles of the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in the U.S. As a result, I’m currently working from home as part of a corporate decision to minimize community exposure. The sudden change in routine and the level of collective anxiety and fear not only brings this particular crisis into very tangible reality. It also raises the questions of mortality, how we want to live and how we’re actually living.
There’s nothing like a potential threat to reveal what we value, what we’re willing to do to defend it, and how we choose to do so.
On a summer bike ride a few years ago, I stopped at a riverside park for a break and to watch the parade of families and fishermen, ducks and dogs enjoying the sun and the water. One young family included a toddler still learning to navigate the slightly uneven grassy terrain, and a golden retriever whose shoulders came nearly to the boy’s nose.
The father was playing toss and retrieve with the dog. With one long heave, he threw the tennis ball into the river. The dog raced after it, dove into the water, and came bounding back, scattering ducks and sending spray flying in every direction. He dropped the ball at the man’s feet. The toddler patted the dog’s ear and back with his somewhat vague aim.
I had my camera with me that day and caught the retriever as he came out of the water with his corona of water droplets and his lime green tennis ball clasped proudly in his teeth. It struck me then as the picture of unbounded joy, and I’ve returned to it often in the years since to remind myself of that state.
I did so again today. It seemed a good time. Like fear, joy has a transformative effect. In fact, the expansiveness of joy can disarm and heal the contraction of fear. Not with wishful, magical thinking. It doesn’t pretend that by simply looking the other way we can make whatever frightens us go away. Or deny that anything is wrong at all, leaving us floating on the surface of our fear, seemingly untouched by it, but unable to move beyond it.
Joy is not putting on a happy face.
Joy is clear-eyed and courageous. It doesn’t pretend or deny. It does, however, let us reset our priorities and reframe our story. It allows us to experience our fears, expose our vulnerabilities, without losing our center. Joy is our ground luminosity, our gravitational field.
So, periods of stress and fear are the perfect time to remember what brings us joy. Not as a distraction, but as an anchor.
A global pandemic might lead us to feel like it will take an equally cataclysmic event to turn the tide. But joy operates on a different scale. Often it’s the small, inconsequential moments that reverberate the longest and resonate the deepest.
Like the boundless joy of a dog retrieving a ball. The call and response of two owls across the stillness of a winter night. The irrepressible, light-footed thunder of small children running back and forth on a floor above us.
These small moments are invitations. They don’t make our fears go away. They don’t make us immune to a virus. But they allow us to reconnect to our joy, and that changes the arc of our reality.
The Buddhists have a saying: Abandon the unskillful. It’s a simple directive, and another way to reconnect with joy—letting go of contraptions and contrivances we’ve accumulated in pursuit of happiness and reward so that what’s true and clear and essential can shine.
Like the eyes of a golden retriever playing catch. And the face of a toddler standing vertical in a world he’s just beginning to encounter.