The news would have me believe the world is ending. Climate change, the global refugee crisis, children being locked in cages, economic uncertainty, the student debt crisis, the housing market, the job market– it is all pressure and no relief. With media saturation, overstimulation, we are told we are failures. Entire economic and political systems rest on us believing we are not enough, that our inability to succeed in every aspect of personhood simultaneously illuminates an innate defect inside of us. I feel like a failure all the time. I experience constant panic over everything. My mind is a post apocalyptic freeway at rush hour where all traffic laws are gone, and I just want it to be a summer cruise down a one-stoplight town. There is an answer, a brief and fleeting cure to feeling like the world is ending– joy. To, in even the hardest of time, steadfastly seek what makes it easier to breathe. We’re not going to make it out of life alive. So, it’s important, nay imperative, to be good to ourselves while we are here. Joy is a political act. Joy is a radical act. Joy is how we save ourselves
Marginalized populations have modeled this behavior since the dawn of time. The oppressed have survived and persevered through finding light amidst the suffering. Sociologists have observed that in developing countries, they will always find money for entertainment. During the Great Depression, the movie business stayed thriving because even the poorest of the poor scraped pennies together to escape for two hours at a time, to find solace in the silver screen. Oppressed communities have built save havens so they can tend to their own, if only for a few hours: think of the jazz clubs, of gay clubs, of Wigstock, Lilith fair, etc. We rely on joy to continue. Consider service animals for cancer patients, afterschool programs in impoverished communities, the concerts and comedy events put on for the troops overseas. We make this life one moment at a time. When daunted by the big, looming doom, we have to break it into smaller parts to devour it. Joy is our refuge. It is the life raft we ride through peril. When we invest in joy, we are investing in our survival.
I graduated from college with more debt than most of my peers. My chest sunk as I calculated my monthly repayments. I attended a state school, worked three jobs in college. I was frugal. I never went on Spring Break– always capitalizing on that time by pouring 60-70 hours into my various gigs. Still, I was here. Still, I found myself humiliated. My first year out of undergrad, I punished myself. The coordinates of my existence consisted almost solely of work and my apartment. I dared not venture where it would cost me money. I subsisted on peanut butter sandwiches. I saved every cent and flogged myself for spending even $1.75 on a parking meter. I viewed my student debt as a defect, as a character flaw. Night after night, I stared at how much I owe and berated myself “you selfish piece of shit,” I’d whisper to myself, “weren’t you thinking at at?” I was. I wanted an education. I wanted a way out of the eighteen years prior to that. So, I went to school. I do not regret this. If there is a price tag attached to how I was able to save and better my life, so be it.
These ideologies are unhealthy and unsustainable. I am not an advocate for living outside your means. I’m not saying to haphazardly spend into the throes of credit card debt. The reality is that student debt is indicative of our national climate, of the policies that shackle millennials with an excessive financial burden, that it is largely systemic and hard to avoid.
In the two years since that ruthless year in Cleveland, I’ve softened with myself. This doesn’t feel like progress but failure. I miss the shrewd self-discipline I once wielded, even if it was catastrophic for my mental health. I relied on strict rules to keep me stable only to go haywire the moment I bent in the direction of humanity. I am soft. I am human. I am imperfect, and that’s not a flaw. It’s just a fact, a data point, a truth. The closer I get to truth, the closer joy becomes.
There’s a fetishization of misery, how it legitimizes our struggle. The only way we can demonstrate our trying is to suffer– it is to indulge in the “experts” on the very things that are trapping us and inhale as they chide us for living. It is ok to be unhappy. It is ok not to be ok. Joy is a flexible sensation, able to wrangle itself amidst an array of circumstances. Joy is not the solution. It is how we tolerate. Joy is how we survive. Facing tragedy or oppression, the human capacity to celebrate amidst the ash is a miracle and a political act.
I don’t know that I see a way out of all of this. I only know we must survive it. To survive, you must be in one piece, and the only way to maintain yourself is to take care of yourself. You must. Deafen all the voices feeding your worthlessness, and remind yourself that humanity existed prior to these constructs. There are immovable truths. To have wifi, the wifi bill has to be paid. Same with electric and your car and all these other things. But do not tether your worth to jobs or who likes you or finances or even elections. These are all fickle metrics, able to turn as rapidly as we rest upon them. We owe it to ourselves to do the best that we can with what we have.
We owe it to ourselves to be kind to ourselves. Personhood is this elaborate jigsaw puzzle. Figuring ourselves out is a game of bumper cars in the quest for the pieces that fit. I am in a perpetual state of whiplash. My mom worked for the FBI when we was my age. She had met my father, the man she would marry less than two years later. I feel like a failure because I have nothing figured out. I have a full time job but feel professionally amiss. I feel a constant state of doubt about if my choices are “right”, if I am pissing away my twenties. But the only way we discover our joy is through trial and error. We have to dare to fail in order to access the best parts of live. So dare and fall. Go belly-up only to rise stronger. The bumper car collisions are a part of finding the right pieces. The right pieces change. And it’s all ok in the end.
Life is messy, shades of murky gray. But in joy, it transforms into the most spectacular spectrum of silver I’ve ever beheld. No one feels like we’re doing it exactly “right”. There’s never enough time, enough money, enough. But we ARE enough. We, our mistakes and contradictions and truth, unconditionally deserve joy when it doesn’t come at the expense of other human beings . We need to seek it, priorizize it. Because I have this one life. I don’t wanna worry on my deathbed. I aspire to lay in awe of all the times I could have hated myself but chose light instead. I chose to try instead. I chose joy, even when everything else was closer.