Have you ever had something that happened decades ago bother the shit out of you, and you can’t figure out why? Like, what’s wrong with you, you should ‘be over it by now’…? Let’s dive into my particulars and see if there isn’t a universal truth hidden in there, ’cause this came up for me recently and I’ll bet you’ve learned a similar lesson in your life.
The setting: it’s 1989. I’m in the third grade, and I’ve got to go to class with Mrs. Spisso.
Mrs. Fucking. Spisso.
Picture a shrill woman comprised entirely of sharp angles with half-moon reading glasses perched on her nose. Add a strong dislike for children and too many years working in the Mount Pleasant Area School District.
Now, give her the gifted students. Surely they will be easy for her to handle because they are smart! Surely they will keep her from screaming at all hours of the school day!
Our story proceeds.
I’m eight years old and we’re having class in the art room. I don’t remember what Mrs. Spisso is talking about because WE ARE IN THE ART ROOM. My favorite. The home of infinite messes, the sweet hum of scissors slicing construction paper, and those ginormous tubs of paste (worthy of quietly huffing when no one is looking) placed in pairs on each table.
We’re working on some project or another and I realize the room is hot. Really hot. The floor tiles look nice and cool, so I lie down on them. I remember feeling the floor underneath my body, all refreshing and shiny and soothing.
::tiny Kristen sighs contentedly::
All of a sudden, Mrs. Spisso screeches a flaming surge of words: WE DO NOT LIE ON THE FLOOR WE DO NOT ACT LIKE THAT EVER FOR ANY REASON WE ARE NOT ANIMALS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! She goes on and on. I take my place on a stool and sit down, never to lie on the floor in school again.
I’ve carried that story around for years, always wondering why it hurt me so much. It was only being yelled at, right? Get a friggin grip, it’s NOT A BIG DEAL.
In the larger arc of my life, though? 8-year-old me got the message that joy is canceled. Because joy lives in the body, and I abandoned my body that day. (It took me years to come back to the body itself, and here’s how I did it.)
Think about it: remember a moment of joy you’ve held onto in which you weren’t in your body.
Impossible, because joy lives in the body. Laughter lives in the body, as do orgasms, singing, dancing, and eating. That sunset you watched and loved. Those evenings with that person you love. The moments when you’ve laughed despite yourself — in school, at church, or when it was otherwise wildly inappropriate.
When we are chased out of the body, we lose most of our access to joy.
We are taught this at such a young age that we might not even remember losing our ties to what the body wants: You can’t do something just because it feels good! You can’t trust your body to want any of the things it wants, especially something as subversive and shocking as LYING ON THE FLOOR!
In other words: Joy! Is! Canceled!
In pictures after this time, you can see my body expanding from year to year. I ate more and more ice cream, ’cause that was a socially sanctioned way for me to enjoy life and be in my body. At the same time, I stopped trying to run around and do bodily things because the body can’t be trusted. Got that message loud and clear. And doing something because it feels good or might be pleasurable? NOT OKAY EVER.
Joy is not canceled. Ever. For any reason.
As unrest and bullshit and corporate thieving and intersecting systems of oppression make themselves more clearly pronounced around the globe, you might get the message that joy is canceled. That somehow you personally deciding to give up your joy, hope, and general enjoyment of life will make life for someone else better. That you don’t deserve access to any contentment whatsoever when there’s so much suffering in the world. Or you might fully disassociate from your body because this world we’re living in is too. damn. much.
Surely there’s something you can do, and if giving up feeling pleasure for life will help, then…you’ll give it a try? Please don’t.
Canceling joy is dangerous.
We humans have four base emotions: fear, anger, sadness, and joy.
Given enough joy stifling, we can easily reach a place in which we experience ONLY fear, anger, and sadness. That’s a brutal existence.
Refusing to feel the best of life does not save you from the worst of life.
Waiting for the other shoe to drop doesn’t stop it from dropping.
No matter where or how you’re working to make change — in your life, your community, your nation, and on this planet — joy is not canceled.
Your brain will say that you can’t POSSIBLY feel good things after reading the news. And there are lots and lots of shitty things to feel at this moment, that’s true. You don’t need me to list the ‘unprecedented’ levels of bullshit we humans are facing at this moment in time. There is much to do, to protest, to burn down, to fix, to change, and to re-imagine.
But life without joy — in which you tamp down, try to control, or even eliminate your own joy for the supposed sake of others — hurts your soul.
When you cancel joy, you are actively creating a future without joy in it. For you, and for everyone you meet.
When you deny yourself the pleasure of experiencing life’s good things — including rest — you have less juice for handling the bad.
When you refuse to feel the sun on your face or to notice that baby giggling over there, you’re creating a future for yourself without joy in it. When you don’t play along with the dogs running after balls and the kids running after ice cream trucks, you suffer.
The world has enough suffering.
Voluntary suffering in the form of foregoing joy does not and will not serve anyone. Ever.
Again: this doesn’t mean there aren’t hard things happening. Doesn’t mean there isn’t bullshit going on. Doesn’t mean we don’t keep signing and protesting and donating and fundraising and speaking up. Doesn’t in any way negate the fear, anger, and sadness of the human race.
Feeling joy in our bodies means we fuel ourselves with good shit so that we can better handle the bullshit.
When you take the time to fill up on the simple pleasures of being alive, you become stronger in the face of uncertainty, more likely to take actions that uphold positive change, and more open to the experience of life itself.
Refusing to cancel joy makes you far more resilient over time.
If there was a Mrs. Spisso in your life who made you shut down joy in any form, you can reclaim that goodness right now.
Over the years, which people or institutions have encouraged you to cancel joy? This includes restricting seemingly unrelated things like your movements and eating habits. Who has tried to stop you from singing, dancing, or speaking, whether publicly or privately?
Who taught you that the body can’t be trusted for the fulfillment of even its most innocent desires, like lying on the floor when it’s too hot?
Which people or societal systems discouraged you from resting or from enjoying the fruits of your labor?
Who taught you a productivity-above-all-else mentality that makes you try to ‘earn’ joy, push pleasure til later (never NOW), or assume you’ll access joy only when X happens? (Where X is become a millionaire, lose 30 pounds, or watch your last kid graduate high school?)
These are the roots of your asshole brain‘s battle with joy itself.
You don’t have to do anything with this knowledge except interrupt the pattern — i.e. catch your brain in the act of trying to cancel joy — and then choose a new mode of being.
Laugh with the babies.
Run with the dogs.
Soak in the sun.
Eat some ice cream.
Lie on the floor.
Take a nap.
Please choose to be here-on-earth-and-alive-despite-everything, over and over and over again.
Fight for your own soul’s aliveness by reclaiming joy, and then fight like hell for the liberation of every last being on earth. We will all be better for it.
And life? It doesn’t count if you don’t enjoy it.
P.S. Speaking of liberation! Breathwork for Coping with 2020 is $33, and 50% of proceeds are being donated to Black Lives Matter. If you a.) think 2020 is bullshit and b.) want to show up in your life as a kinder, more alive human instead of a flaming cesspool of unfelt feelings, this class is for you.
If you’d like to reclaim joy starting right now, this breathwork class is the perfect place to start.