Joy as Fuel

"I’m aware, you know, that I and the people I love may perish in the morning. I know that. But there’s light on our faces now." — James Baldwin

It can be difficult and uncomfortable to write about joy when there is so much suffering in the world. But experiencing joy isn’t turning away from the world, it’s a way to face the world differently. And it can be the fuel we all need. 

Joy helps us find liberation, Maya Angelou said, it is freedom. We need it as we need air and when we have it, we should give it away.

In our overly rational and analytical societies, we tend to focus on the problems that need fixing, on what is wrong. However, when news is always bad news, when politics is crisis management, when NGOs only focus on what they are against, do we not lose sight of what matters and risk losing ourselves and our humanity in the process?

It is very common among activists and people in the human rights field to think that those not directly affected by suffering should feel guilty for other people’s suffering, and therefore, should also suffer. This often manifests through working ourselves to exhaustion. But how does more suffering help anyone? Surely we can bear witness without adding more suffering.

Exhaustion is more likely to lead to despair than anything creative and purposeful. Is it not, in fact, a way of giving into the oppressive system we are trying to change? Jennifer Uchendu says so many activists are struggling with the concept of independent joy but the world would be a much better place if we could be joyful activists.

Unfortunately, joy is often confused with happiness, a state to arrive at or achieve, an individual pursuit. 

“We were assured that we could buy, travel, exercise, and self-improve ourselves into happiness,” Margaret Wheatley writes. “Now, with the mental health pandemic, meaningless work, economic uncertainty, and climate tragedies, it’s time to free ourselves from this empty pursuit and discover the sources of joy.”

So how do we find joy when chaos is all around us? 

Joy is not a heightened state of happiness, Wheatley says, it’s entirely different. According to her, It’s an experience of communion. And there are many stories of people working in natural disasters or situations of great human suffering who experienced and remember joy. This is because when we are in communion, she explains, we are free from our personal needs, we have transcended the boundaries of the self and we see with heightened perception what needs to be done.

Joy is central to many Eastern philosophies and while they vary in how joy is to be nurtured, it is often found when we are in harmony with others and the natural world. It is also often something that comes from within, not from external things or gratifications, it’s an expression of living ethically and a way of becoming free.

Joy is not something we have to learn or practise or make time for, but we do have to nurture it and make space for it. Perhaps some of us have to remember it. Children and babies often express joy in its simplest and purest form. 

Climate leader Christiana Figueres says joy is part of the work we have to do, the “intentional cultivating of a mind of love and joy is so critical to our personal resilience, to our personal regeneration, to our personal agency, to our capacity to engage. It’s just a “sine qua non”. Without it, there is no capacity to engage in a positive manner, in a constructive manner, in a transformational manner with anything outside ourselves. [There] just isn’t.”

Joy can be just a spark, but it’s also a form of resistance. It’s one of our most natural human emotions, and it’s a form of paying attention. The work of joy asks us to be present and open, it is creative, rather than destructive. It is how we can create meaning in a world in chaos. 

Words, Veronica Yates
Illustration, Miriam Sugranyes

Since this is our last post of the year, we’ll leave you with a few more quotes from some of the great thinkers that continue to inspire us. And watch this performance of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy performed by an orchestral flash mob in the Spanish city of Sabadell.

“Fearlessness is not only possible, it is the ultimate joy. When you touch nonfear, you are free.” — Thich Nhat Hanh

“It helps no one if you sacrifice your joy because others are suffering. We people who care must be … filled with joy, so that others recognize that caring, that helping and being generous are not a burden, they are a joy. Give the world your love, your service, your healing, but you can also give it your joy. This, too, is a great gift.” 

— Archbishop Desmond Tutu

“To fail to enjoy the good things that are enjoyable is impoverishing and ungrateful.” 

— Wendell Berry

“Joy is de-production.” Byung-Chul Han

“There are so many joys, but I have only known the ones that come like a miracle, touching everything with light.” — Anais Nin


‘In Conversation with Jennifer Uchendu,’ The Rights Studio Illustrated Journal, read here.

Who Do We Choose to Be? Facing Reality, Claiming Leadership, Restoring Sanity, Margaret Wheatley.

“Joy in Chinese Philosophy,” Taiwan Today. Read here.

‘Ecological Hope, and Spiritual Evolution with Christiana Figueres,’ OnBeing with Krista Tippett, 9 November 2023. Listen here.

Further Resources

A Burst of Light and other Essays, Audre Lorde.

The Expulsion of the Other, Byung-Chul Han.

“On Little Joys,” My Belief: Essays on Life and Art, Hermann Hesse.

“Enchantment and the Courage of Joy: René Magritte on the Antidote to the Banality of Pessimism,” The Marginalian by Maria Popova. Read here.

Zen and the Art of Saving the Planet, Thich Nhat Hanh.

“Ode to Joy,” Friedrich von Schiller, read with translation here.

‘Trial, Triumph, and the Art of the Possible: The Remarkable Story Behind Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”’ The Marginalian by Maria Popova. Read here.

“Wendell Berry on Climate Change: To Save the Future, Live in the Present,” Yes Magazine, 24 March 2015. Read here.

‘6 Practices for cultivating happiness, as taught by Thich Nhat Hanh,’ Plum Village App Team, 9 January 2021. Read here.

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