Michael O’Leary: Notes on Joy [Experiments in Joy]

 

[1] “Discard anything that does not spark joy.” So says Japanese organizational consultant Marie Kondo. We all know what she means. Get rid of everything that does not carry sentiment or that does not give pleasure. But joy? Do things give you joy? I like my sweater. It’s comfortable. It makes me feel confident. Or whatever. But it doesn’t give me joy.
[2] Joy is most easily defined as extreme happiness and pleasure.
[3] What does your face look like when you are filled with joy? Do you want to know?
[4] How long should joy last? It seems weird to think of joy lasting for days like an earache. Joy is a flash. An hour at most.
[5] “A thing of beauty is a joy forever.”
[6] When do we generally first experience joy? Is the joy we experience at Christmas the same kind of joy we experience as adults? How does time affect our experience of joy?
[7] Is it better to rarify or normalize joy?
[8] Joy is a feeling. We have a name for the feeling. We call it joy.
[9] How can a localized excess of amino acids in a segment of DNA be transformed into euphoria? How can cells, synapses, and neurotransmitters create the experience of joy?
[10] When I asked my son when was the last time he experienced joy, he told me, “Just
now, when I ate that M&M.”
[11] Little boy.
[12] Full of joy.
[13] Scarcity vs. abundance.
[14] Almond Joy.
[15] Mounds. “Just call it ‘Mounds’,” I imagine someone saying.
[16] Must there always be a component of potential with joy? That it can be repeated. Or is this just one axis of joy?
[17] Swimming in Lake Michigan over deep water where you can still see the bottom of
the lake.
[18] Riding a bike with your shirt off.
[19] Ode to Joy.
[20] Is the awareness of joy always retrospective? Some kinds of joy might allow for consciousness of itself while it is happening. But extreme and intense joy; that’s hard to be aware of in the moment. Like the gap between knowing the location and the trajectory of a particle.
[21] And if you are able to observe your own joy how do you do it? Does it make you feel less joy or more if you’re aware of it while it’s happening?
[22] When I asked my kids when they first became aware of an experience of joy, they said they couldn’t remember ever having an experience like that. Nevertheless, they said they experience joy regularly, like laughter.
[23] Describe joy succinctly in a few words or a few sentences, as in F = ma.
[24] All art forms attempt to represent joy. But poetry may be the least effective art in conveying the feeling of joy. The sheer pleasure of color and paint approach exuberance. Some descriptions of landscapes or fruit or some other activity might be able to convey something similar. But think about music. Music can actually make you feel joy. And movies. Remember the end of Breaking Away. Just as he crosses the finish line and raises up his arms in victory. Pure joy. You feel it even in watching it. Something about the raising up of arms. The connection to the physical. Utterly fleeting.
[25] The joy of sex. That pretty much covers it.
[26] Joy is easier to define than shape or color. Less abstract than “something bounded.”
[27] “Always rejoice,” says Paul, among other things.
[28] On my way to work I saw a woman jogging. She spread her arms apart and smiled in a gesture of joy. Was it the music she was listening to? Was she crazy? At the moment of her elation, did it matter?
[29] The axes of joy. Repeatability. Gratuity. Intensity. Perhaps there are more.
[30] At some point, truly intense feeling spills over into physical feeling. I suppose “feelings” always have physical manifestations. But when I say I’m feeling good, it is unlikely that I am referring to anything physical. When I experience joy, however, it often has a physical component.
 [31] I asked my daughter if joy can be claimed. She said, “No, joy happens. You can’t claim it; you can only receive it.”
[32] Thus says the Lord, according to the prophet Zechariah, “Rejoice heartily, o daughter
Zion, shout for joy, o daughter Jerusalem.”
[33] The imperative to rejoice is common in many religions. I mention this observation to my wife, who is not religious. I’m Catholic. She is careful to point out that joy is not the exclusive domain of religion. But I’m not suggesting as much, despite atheists being such a dour self-satisfied bunch. I’m kidding! Atheists are hilarious. Most of my friends are atheists or agnostics. And I certainly have shared many non-religious joys with my wife. I’ve also experienced religious joys with her– the events may be the same, but we understand them differently. The birth of our children is an obvious example. But I’m simply noting that joy and suffering are frequently paired, especially in a religious context, as if you can’t have one without the other. And in the case of many saints, such as St.Teresa, suffering leads directly to joy, even to ecstasy.
[34] “More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” Romans 5:3-5.
[35] I first heard Beethoven’s Ninth when I was 14 and saw A Clockwork Orange. While I neither identified with Alex nor with the feelings Beethoven stirred in him – specifically the compulsion to violence – I was possessed by the Ninth, even listening to a few notes. The tingling began at the back of my head and worked its way down my spine and into my limbs. The first time I heard it live, I convulsed in my seat, amplifying the vibrations I felt through the floor. Whenever I went to hear the Ninth again, I made sure to find an edge seat, high in the balcony so no one would notice me trembling. Was that joy or possession? At what point does joy become ecstasy?
[36] We retain our sense of self in joy, but we lose it in ecstasy.
[37] Joy arises from a physical feeling or induces a physical feeling. A tingling at the base
of the neck. Tears. A lump in the throat.
[38] Nearly a year ago I accepted a job offer and met my new bosses for dinner several weeks before I started. I was leaving structural engineering for quantitative analysis, a field about which I knew almost nothing. I had spent almost a decade focusing on seismic analysis and design of nuclear power plants. Challenging and often stressful, the work was made more demanding by the fact that I worked for assholes. Big-time, greedy, duplicitous assholes. But the US nuclear industry was and is dying and because of the highly specialized skill set required to do the work, it can be very difficult to get out. I had spent years applying to other jobs both inside and outside of the industry and I knew the transition to becoming a quant was a longshot at best. So when I confirmed over the course of dinner that not only had I gotten out of the nuclear industry but that I may have landed a good job working with good people, I felt a little giddy. The night was bitterly cold. Although my feet were frozen as I rode my bike home I found myself laughing spontaneously. I knew I didn’t deserve my new job, but I didn’t care. That’s what I mean by the gratuity of joy.
[39] A few years ago I was on a six-month field assignment at a nuclear power plant on the central coast of California, about halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles. My family came out from Chicago and stayed with me for a month in Morro Bay. On the final weekend of their visit we drove down to LA, which was apparently in the midst of a heat wave, 93° and dry. Admittedly the bungalow we rented near Chinatown was a little hot, so we drove to Venice Beach for a swim. The water was temperate and the waves were sublime. We played in the surf until the sun went down. At one point in the late afternoon I was about fifty yards out from where my wife and kids were swimming. I caught the crest of a particularly shapely wave and felt a surge of water buoy me to the surface, my head haloed in foam. The wave was hurtling me straight towards my family when both of my kids noticed. They told me I reminded them of the river dragon in Howl’s Moving Castle, that I had become all wave but for a floating head. And that’s exactly how I felt, like a fucking sea dragon. At the beach with my family. Wave after wave.
[40] What does it mean to claim joy? Perhaps the deepest joy is born of suffering,
suffering that teaches us to give up expectations, that insists on the virtue of
acceptance.
[41] Only when your expectations are stripped away do you begin to appreciate how little you deserve, that despite your decency and hard work and commitment to whatever you consider to be virtuous causes, there are billions of people just as deserving of validation as you and many no doubt are more deserving. But this is not an admonition to appreciate growing up in a wealthy country. Nor is this a denial of basic human rights. This is just what suffering teaches.
[42] Many different kinds of suffering afflict us, including physical and psychological suffering. Chronic disease brings physical pain and discomfort as well as psychological suffering. While physical pain can be seen as a mental interpretation of physical stimuli, the suffering has an organic basis, whereas psychological suffering is based entirely on an interpretation of events. In the case of disease, you might fear death or worry that your physical condition won’t improve, which leads to a sense of hopelessness. “It’s never going to get better. ” All of this is obvious.
[43] Most people, even most Christians, regard the emphasis on suffering found in Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky as too heavy and needlessly ghoulish. And if it was presented as an alien theology, most people would utterly reject all that misery and misunderstanding. Why so much suffering and sacrifice? From a certain perspective the New Testament can seem not only absurd, but inhuman. Love your enemies, always rejoice, especially when you’re miserable. Why? Certainly some martyrs took pleasure in pain, but let’s set aside the perverse for a moment, to see if there is a theological point to all of this suffering. According to the Gospels, the parables are not enough to get people to see. Miracles are not enough. Healing is not enough. Even when Jesus enters Jerusalem and is greeted as the Messiah, his kingdom is completely misunderstood. And in Mark , which originally ended with Mary Magdalene, Mary, and Salome fleeing an empty tomb in terror, even the risen Christ is confounding. So what’s it going to take? “Take up your cross and follow me.” I don’t like the sound of it either. It seems joyless and humorless. But then you get the resurrection.
[44] Of all the things he could’ve done after the resurrection, Jesus chose to barbecue. What could be more beautiful than grilling fishes at the beach for your friends? The affirmation of fishes and loaves, the most basic meal.
[45] At the end of It’s a Wonderful Life George Bailey runs down the street affirming the very shittiness of the life he’s been trying to escape. Yes. That’s claiming joy. Claiming joy in the shabby and mundane. And the only way to that joy is through a vision of suffering and death.
[46] I get why Nietzsche raged against Christianity. It’s a crazy religion. And he probably was more than a bit of an asshole himself. But the things that seem so distasteful – sin and suffering and repentance – are also what most resonate with experience. And the unprovable articles of faith like the incarnation, the resurrection, and the trinity align in such perfect syzygy that they radiate the truth like the coronal filaments of a total eclipse.
[47] Does that last line make you uncomfortable? Too poetic? Too naive? As in “this guy is a creepy Christian”? Consider Euclid’s parallel postulate. From this apparently self-evident assertion, that parallel lines remain parallel all the way out to infinity, you get the beautiful lucidity of Euclidean geometry and a wealth of geometric facts that can be put to practical use in, for example, the design of nuclear power plants. For over two thousand years people went on doing geometry until Lobachevsky came along and showed that the parallel postulate was an axiomatic assumption, an article of faith if you will. We can barely walk without making assumptions. Some of them are explicit, others are hidden. And still others we pretend are laws as inevitable as gravity.
[48] Back to definitions. Hunger, torture, these seem like the worst kinds of suffering. To be tortured to death for a crime you did not commit, for no crime at all, that seems like the bottom of misery and injustice, whether you believe or not. In the silence before dying, the wrongfully accused must realize, “This is it. This is how it’s going to
happen. Life is truly not fair.”
[49] Now back to psychological suffering. What is the source of our endogenous suffering? In the simplest terms, suffering is wanting something and not getting it. Suffering is to want something badly and still not get it. Even when we are sick and in pain, we seek relief more than anything. When we cannot obtain that relief we suffer. One remedy for suffering is to snuff out our desires, whatever that means. But there is another way, which is to learn to live with our desires and the disappointment associated with them. But what does such disappointment show us? Above all, that justice is not comprehensible.
[50] I want to leave this place. I want some respect. I want to love somebody, really love somebody. I want to be loved. I just want some fucking money. Suffering teaches us drop by drop the vanity of our wishes and the essence of our needs. So to rejoice in suffering, to claim joy in the every day, that is affirmation.
[51] How do you do it?
[52]  I have a friend from college who spent the last three years in prison for organizing a
protest against the Venezuelan government. He went home this summer to his family
under house arrest. It’s been ten years since I’ve had any contact with him. One of
the most grueling and saddest experiences I’ve had to endure is being away from my
family for six months out in California. When I wasn’t working, I found it hard not to
always think of home, even as I was swimming among the sea lions. Leo has two
young kids he hadn’t seen in three years. I thought of him often during his
imprisonment, trying to imagine what it was like. At some point he must have
considered that it would all end badly. But the joy of going home! That you get to eat
dinner with your family again. And tomorrow night, after another day has passed, you
get to eat together again.1
[53] I have a little vegetable garden in my backyard where I grow peppers and tomatoes
and herbs of every kind. It pleases me to watch the bees battling for the lavender.
Sometimes when I study the tomatoes fattening on the vine, the pleasure of
anticipation is so deep, it would be better to call it joy.
[54] DJ Khaled in his yard where he praises a purple flower and the lemons on his lemon
tree. Has anybody seen this? It’s like St. Francis’s “Canticle of the Sun”. I love you.
[55] Joy is a cluster of feelings gathered around the axes of anticipation/repetition,
intensity (usually physical), and gratuity through suffering. There is a fourth
dimension of joy. The joy of freedom. My last month in California I worked the night
shift. From 6 PM to 6 AM every day for 22 days in a row I sat in a double-wide trailer
next to the ocean reviewing calculations and listening to Lester Young. I just couldn’t
get enough of his sound. At 9 PM and at 3 AM I had to climb into a hatch and inspect
the construction of my design. Nodding at the crew, I checked out some rebar
splices, waved, and left the way I came. At 6 AM, I briefed my replacement and went
back to my apartment in San Luis Obispo, which was entirely empty except for a
sleeping bag, a spoon, a bowl, and a cup, two books and two boogie boards I bought
when my family was staying out there with me. I would wake up just after noon and
eat a bowl of cereal on the floor as the sun blazed into the empty living room. I loved
that sunshine. By 2 PM I’d be back at the beach with my boogie board, where I might
see a surfer or two. Often I showered at the beach and went straight to work. I spoke
to almost no one during those three weeks, just the foreman and the day-shift
engineer. I was like a monk devoted to the ocean; the waves were my offices. It was
lonely but I got used to it. On my last day at the plant I went back to the day shift and
came to work with all my belongings. Before going home I had to drive down to
Newport Beach for a weeklong conference on seismic risk assessment, but basically
I was done. My design had been successfully built and I was going home. As I left
the plant and drove along the ocean, I suppose the anticipation of going home
buoyed me, but the clean break felt sweeter, even joyous. As much as I came to love
that coast, and I still think about those waves every day, there is an inexpressible joy
to leaving, especially when everything is buttoned up. The feeling is fleeting, one free
of anticipation or obligation. The feeling is the feeling of freedom. And I felt it on
Highway 101 driving down to LA.
[56] During spring migration this year, I was able to stop by the Magic Hedge at Montrose
Beach to look at birds nearly every morning. One especially bright day in mid-May, I
stood next to two dudes with big cameras hanging from their necks. We had just
seen a Connecticut warbler skulking in the brush and they began high-fiving each
other. I overheard that they had flown all the way from California just for two days at
the Hedge. And the Connecticut was giving them what they came for. I waited by a
tangle of honeysuckle as most birders moved on. With only a few minutes left before
I had to head to work I noticed nearly a dozen female redstarts making the quietest
titter in the bush. Although they were darting from branch to branch apparently
braiding unseen dimensions of air, they never left the honeysuckle. Bathed in such
dewy light, everything about them seemed new and fresh. It was like standing at the
gates of paradise. And where was I going? In or out?

1. Leopoldo López was placed back in prison on August 1, 2017 just after the Venezuelan Constitutional
Assembly election.


Michael O’Leary is co-founder and editor of Flood Editions and works as a quantitative analyst in Chicago.