Friday, December 27, 2013

Joy to the World

A few nights before Christmas, a friend and I were riding the subway home, while talking about how to get people on board with saving the world. We only need about 10% of the population for a revolution. I don’t know how to go about gathering people, or how to better galvanize those who get it and hunger for something better than, happier than normal. These were the questions we batted around as the subway shrieked along in the rain. Would it have done anything if we had gone through the moderately full car, asking if anyone thought that things could be better than they are? If we had yelled “Who wants to salvage the world?” loud enough to be heard over the ubiquitous earbuds, loud enough to cut through whatever private worlds all the riders were coming to and from, would that have done good? Would an attempt have been its own success?

I don’t know.

It is the follow up question that stumbles me—imagining one person removing even a single earbud and asking “Yes, of course, but how?”

I don’t really know what to say to that. How we save the world, and from what, are at once extremely personal and universal sentiments. Any one person will have a thousand and one personal and larger challenges between them and a better world. There is, as yet, no practical handbook, no multi-step program or ladder like trajectory that will save the world. We like steps and routines—like the idea that thirteen years of general education plus four years of specialized training in college plus maybe a few years of additional school plus a marriage plus a house plus some babies plus a good paying job with career advancement opportunities plus a lot of possessions and trinketry will make us happy. Anything outside that expected, culturally reinforced path is alternative and we, collectively, cling to those ideas as what is normal.

Normal seems a bit somnambulistic. With all the individual passions beating in each of our hearts, how could we ever think it is possible for one solution to bring us all our own happiness? And, further, how have we allowed ourselves to be robbed of our hearts and minds by some hypnotic vision of how we must be if we want to be happy, if we want to be successful humans?

Wake up, please.

I get particularly cranky in the days after Christmas, when all of the momentum seems to have been forgotten, when the red and green decorations stand over the piles of used wrapping paper and empty cookie plates. Underneath all of the commercial, consumptive clap-trap of Christmas, there is a razor thin sliver of reality, of hope that peace can be on Earth, that goodwill can extend to all, and that joy can come to the world.

I do not like to see that packed away, as if it were just a dream for December. It seems like the closest we come, culturally, to recognizing what needs to be done, and to fully see what we’re saving the world for, rather than the mortally depressing reality of what we’re saving it—and ourselves—from. We come together, we tell people we love them, we make time for all the things we say really matter.

That difference, between how we save the world and why we each, separately and in a loose coalition, hunger to do so is crucial. I believe that the how follows the why. A dear friend of mine from the mountains worked for many years on a farm. You could see the nearest mountains from a few of the fields, and she would cheerfully explain that the farm was because of the mountains—her love of wild places had led her to work in ways that do something, in the long and short term, to maintain the wilds. The less food has to be trucked around the world, the fewer chemicals that are dumped on our food as it grows, all of this is better for ourselves and for the health of wild places. The why leads the how, belief and love and work made a gritty truth out of possibility. And this woman is one of the happiest people I know, living as she does by joy, rather than by the bounds and strictures of normal.

Perhaps the better question of all the people looking like lonely sleepwalkers on the subway that night would have been, “what do you love?” That seems like a the best jumping off point we really have, what is going to drive all of the best of our labors and happiness in working for the better world that is more than possible. It is at once the hardest and easiest question I know of, and you do not have to answer now. Forget, for a moment, the loaded gun of everything that is pressed against the head of the world—forget climate change, forget income inequality, forget health insurance and grocery lists, forget all of the horrible things that keep you awake at night. Take a breath and think of what brings you joy, what makes you come alive, the things you would rather do than anything else on earth.

This revolution, it’ll come from joy or it won’t come at all. And, better, it’ll come with joy.

Now, who wants to salvage the world?

(Snow bunny photo from

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