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atmathew May 02, 2019
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It’s Wednesday, April 10th, and the sun is shining and the birds are singing. I experience a lot of the world’s beauty through music, so as I peer through the bright windows of my home, the melodies of a singer and her guitar softly play through the headphones in my ears. It’s an experience all too familiar to me, in fact in the past month it’s been frustratingly familiar.

About three weeks ago I found myself in a Japanese emergency room, struggling to find universal words to describe the pain I was feeling in my back. As the doctors struggled to speak English, they informed me that I had injured myself working out and that it was making the simplest things like walking become the hardest of challenges. I returned to the US with pain pills and a note advising me to stay off my feet and to make my new priority rest. During these three weeks of laying down, not being able to drive, and needing assistance just to walk upstairs to sleep, staring outside the window became about the only thing I could do when everyone else was at work.

After two weeks, I finally was able to walk on my own and suddenly I could stroll outside, but after the 3rd hour long walk up and down the path in my backyard, I quickly envied all the cars and bicycles zooming past me. To feel the freedom of travel by car, windows down with my hand out the window singing my favorite song became my daily dream. I write this now, feeling back to my normal self, pretty much that is. I’m thankful that the recovery only took a month, but to me, stuck inside, it felt like an eternity.

Sometime along the long month of recovery, my social media feeds started to inform my thinking and I soon found a post that read, “Life is too short to prioritize life’s challenges, instead prioritize life’s joys.” I thought about the process it would take for me to achieve this goal. Since I couldn’t work out, maybe this was the sort of exercise I was so desperately needing. Condition my mind to seek joy, stretch the muscles of my mouth to become accustomed to smiling, and expend my energy to strengthen the core of my heart that yearns for joy. It was hard, there’s no way around that. It was hard. But at least I was doing something “productive.”

A couple of days later my social media feed shifted its message. Instead on that day, I read a different post that read, “Close your eyes and breathe, block out everything else, and just breathe.” I was shocked. Instead of feeling encouraged, I felt opposed. Wasn’t I supposed to spend my time focusing on thinking about my joy? Now I’m hearing that thinking isn’t the solution, I should just breathe and feel my joy. Is it really as easy as breathing? I walked outside and tried, I will admit it was just as hard. As I tried to take a deep breath, thoughts began to swirl around in my head such as, “This won’t work” or “People are looking at you standing in the middle of this path thinking you’re a weirdo” and of course, “You’re hungry, stop taking deep breaths and go find food.”

I began to wonder if those two messages are in opposition with one another. I know, as everyone else does, the words of the Bobby McFerrin song, “Don’t worry, be happy.” But, I also know that sometimes it’s in my best interest to focus all my energy on what makes me happy by thinking about my situation in its entirety. So am I supposed to combat my worries and find joy, or forget my worries and just feel joy? Are they even different messages and processes? Maybe, they’re not in opposition.
It is these questions that led me to wonder where other people stood. My curiosity has led me to curate this new series on Joy in order to try and help create a space where I along with you all can explore these questions. I don’t want to assume that everyone feels the way I do, and I’m certain there is plenty for me to learn from this community on a topic as deep as Joy. For this series, I want to pose these questions out to the far reaches of this amazing storytelling community. What does joy mean to you? How do you seek it? In general, I think just more first-hand accounts of experiencing joy will help build out the definition, feeling, and understanding of what joy is.

As I sit here a month after my life took an unexpected turn for the worse, I am reminded of the road that brought me here. The incredible people that took time off to help take care of me, the smart and compassionate doctors that cared for me, and the warmth of the sun to remind me that there is always something worth taking another step for. As I get ready to get in the car for the first time in a month, I would be lying if I said I wasn’t feeling immense joy right now. But I’m also reminded of the joy I found through this past month by thinking and sometimes not. I will leave you today with a short poem I wrote when I was stuck on my couch.

The birds sing because they can fly,
cars roar because they can drive,
yet I lay here in silence because I can not.
Joy, I wonder if you know me,
if you miss me,
or maybe you’re just a passing thought.

The hums of the wind through the leaves,
the whistles of the birds,
and the drum of kids running on the ground.
A song seeming so far away from me,
yet a song all the same.
I wonder if, in this song, joy abounds

I can’t wait to be a part of it again,
to dance and to play,
to sing the words of joy’s song.
It is odd though,
my ears hearing sounds that turn into melody,
my heart reassured by a familiarity of this song.
Maybe, just maybe, joy has been singing for me all along.

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