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Ode to joy

by Robert Docter, Editor-In-Chief – 

I had a wonderful time in elementary school—the same classmates from the second grade to the sixth. I liked them all, and Elma Armstrong brought some particular joy although she never knew it. One of those classmates was my twin brother who added much to my joy and brought me great security in knowing I always had a back-up. I think I needed it.

Calling my second grade teacher “gooney” might have brought me attention from my classmates, but it was not wise to deliver the message so directly to her. She kept me after school and threatened to call the police—a little over-kill, I thought.

I escaped through a classroom window while she was either in the teacher’s room laughing with friends or making that dreaded phone call. I don’t believe I ever mentioned the incident to my parents, and I don’t think my brother ever did either.

When the bell rang around noon we would go to lunch and sit on the same benches in the warmth of a questionable San Francisco sun. Our tin lunch boxes would fly open and we would dive in to our bologna sandwiches, eat the apple and save the cupcake for last. It was dessert.
As always, the dessert delivered the greatest delight. I ate it in a special way—breaking the icing part off and putting it aside while I bolted through the cake part. That part would go quickly while I savored the joyful thought of the rich, chocolate icing. When I got to it the very chocolate icing came and went in a few seconds.

Somehow, I wish that as I was traversing those irregularly easy years of preadolescence I had learned to eat the cupcake as it was designed—to eat the icing with the cake rather than postpone it to the end. Both would have tasted better. I wonder if my cupcake strategy contributed to the delay I’ve experienced in understanding the nature of joy.

It’s almost as if the anticipation of pleasure exceeded the pleasure itself. That’s often the way things go in life.

I guess my parents taught me early that the postponement of gratification leads to maturity, and that being mature was a good thing.

I know my brother learned this lesson well. I have lagged a little behind.

I think it was Emerson who suggested that “It is better that joy should be spread over all the day in the form of strength, than that it should be concentrated into ecstasies, full of danger and followed by reactions.”

There’s a lot in that sentence. I think he means that it is better to go through life with balanced feelings—straight and level—top-dead-center—steady and consistent—being predictable, rather than to seek out great, sudden bursts of remarkable excitement and pleasure or plummet into the depths of despair. It takes discipline—strength to postpone gratification.

As I’ve slowly matured I’ve learned how to achieve that balance—to find a measure of euphoria while also spreading my joy. I see both the value of postponing gratification while enjoying the excitement of a fun-filled life.

I went to an amusement park with a few of my grandsons recently. They were attracted mostly to the roller coasters and other thrill rides. I joined them. Roller coasters seem to move faster these days than the ones of my early years, but they don’t seem as dangerous. They are now made of carefully constructed steel rather than that rickety, wobbly wooden framing, rather loosely tied together with bolts. They are now monitored by computers along the track instead of a teen-age carny-kid in a red jacket. You weren’t anchored in seats then—
only a leather lap belt held you down. Those rides were scary—these are fun.

No matter where or when you took the up and down coaster ride, the result for the rider was always the same. I noticed that as the grandsons climbed out of their cars, the euphoria lasted as long as it took to start looking for the next thrill.

There’s never enough ecstasy to last. It disappears as fast as a cocaine high. And, both are highly addictive. You keep chasing that first high all your life if you’re not careful.

Me—I’m careful. I want to be steady, but not hum-drum. I want to be predictable, but I don’t see this as being always the same. I want to be consistent in my attention to basic values, but not one who blindly follows a rigid path.

I’m certain we need some fun in life. We need a few of those exciting highs, but we can’t allow ourselves to become addicted to them. So—I avoid depression by taking a little off the top of the highs.
Joy, then, becomes the sine wave of not too high and not too low. You’re happy to be in a slight funk because you know that happy times are coming soon. I also know that if you want joy in your life, you have to be the one who puts it there. It’s not deliverable like a Sunday night pizza.

So joy finds pleasure in both the lows and the highs. The key is disciplined balance in everything.

God, be merciful to me, a cynic!

God, be merciful to me, a cynic!

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