In the film Dead Poets Society, Robin William’s character, Mr Keating, provides an aspirational figure for the boys he teaches … In an iconic moment, Keating climbs on his desk, to the bemusement of his pupils, and begins to speak:
‘Why do I stand up here? Anybody … ? […] I stand upon my desk to remind myself that we must constantly look at things in a different way. You see, the world looks very different from up here. You don’t believe me? Come see for yourself. Come on. Come on!’
The boys begin to stand on his desk. Keating jumps down. ‘Just when you think you know something, you have to look at it in another way. Even though it may seem silly or wrong, you must try! … Thoreau said “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Don’t be resigned to that. Break out!’
(cited in Brian Draper, Spiritual Intelligence)
Deliberately choosing joy is an experience of sudden – or gradual – awakening. For the Mages it was a cataclysmic happening that took over their minds, bodies and spirits; but it came at the end of months – perhaps years – of journeying, of seeking, of doubting. For me, it is an infinitesimal shimmer spotted out of the corner of my eye, the thinnest of threads of hope dangling from the cliff faces of my void. It will grow. It will thicken. It will lengthen. I will be bound up in it, caught, safety-roped into the very heart of the Beloved. For poet Rabindranath Tagore, one encounter with Joy was found through contemplation of the natural landscape and the character of light:
The sun was just rising through the leafy tops of those trees. As I continued to gaze, all of a sudden a covering seemed to fall away from my eyes, and I found the world bathed in a wonderful radiance, with waves of beauty and joy swelling on every side. This radiance pierced in a moment through the folds of sadness and despondency which had accumulated over my heart and flooded it with this universal light.
(from John Pridmore, Playing with Icons (128))
I have known few experiences of being pierced with radiance, but I can remember two moments in particular, when, with my camera in hand, I was just sitting in my wheelchair, alone, waiting, watching light play on water. These were times of illness and sadness overtaken by a welling-up of quiet joy – an experience of fullness and wellbeing, of wholeness, that defies description. In those moments I felt a sense of purpose, long dormant, being reborn in me. In those moments I was able to answer the Great Questioner with a humble ‘Yes’.
Russ Harris, author of The Reality Slap counsels that ‘in the midst of great pain we find great passion’ (141), and identifies the importance presence, purpose and privilege play in the healing of deep emotional trauma:
As we pay attention, with openness and curiosity, we get present. Then we infuse this relationship with purpose: we connect with our eyes; we care about them; and we reflect on how they contribute to our lives, and, in turn, we contribute our gratitude. And as we truly appreciate what eyesight gives us – as we treasure the very miracle of vision itself – then in that moment, we get a sense of privilege. (183-4)
Curiosity. Compassion. Gratitude. Connection. These are the signposts that point this JoyPilgrim the right way.
What would it mean to live
in a city whose people were changing
each other’s despair into hope? –
You yourself must change it. –
what would it feel like to know
your country was changing? –
You yourself must change it. –
Though your life felt arduous
new and unmapped and strange
what would it mean to stand on the first
page of the end of despair?
from ‘dreams before waking’ (1983)
‘the first page of the end of despair?’ iPhone image.