By Jan Worth-Nelson
Sometimes you have to fight for joy.
At a recent East Village Magazine party at my house, wine flowed and four kinds of pasta from Flour and Eggs, comfort food extraordinaire, disappeared in thick hunks from trays on the big table, two extra leaves put in for the occasion. I’d put up some colored lights and we toasted to neighborliness and the power of words. It was a happy night.
But as we jovially congratulated ourselves on what we think we’ve accomplished lately, one of our distributors paused, leaning in the doorway, and observed, “But it’s gotten so political, more than it used to be.”
Emboldened by my second or third goblet of pinot noir, I retorted, “Yeah, and I can tell you why. I’m PISSED OFF.”
In the early days after November, 2016, I wrote a couple of bitter columns about the outcome, my “derangement” as we’re calling it, on florid display. A few colleagues suggested this was not the best approach for a column—nor the best role for an editor, who is supposed to mediate divergent views, and moderate from a position of neutrality. Of course they were right.
I stopped writing, except for doggedly showing up from time to time to cover news stories with the familiar relief, the familiar discipline, like silently taking a yoga pose: who, what, where, when, why and how. My colleagues, our beloved crew of EVM staff writers, stalwartly tried to do the same.
For six months, my gut hurt every day and my good doctor put me on a powerful pill that calmed my insides but made my tongue oddly lazy, my speech slurring at unexpected moments. It horrified me. I stopped taking that pill and got a tattoo, which helped.
As we pulled out of the Paris Climate Accord, the Iran Nuclear Agreement, as we caged children at the border, as mass shootings and floods and fires piled up, as the current administration went after its critics—military heroes, judges, and especially infuriating and personal for me, the press—it has gradually become clear this is not going to stop.
Every day feels like a catastrophe in the making.
Every day, the urge toward lamentation comes in waves: so much is lost, so much being squandered, the earth in peril and the country engulfed in ugly division. The country, it seems to me, is in the midst of a near-primal struggle over who we are – values, like so many others, I had taken for granted. I thought we all agreed we wanted life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for each other. I thought we all agreed we believed in a more perfect union, in the rule of law. I thought as a nation we shared compassion for the poor; I am nearly ancient and still so naïve.
So what’s the big deal about joy, anyway? As the Christmas lights go up everywhere, the world seems to say to us, “you’re supposed to be happy, damn it!”
I’ve never been one to bend to other people’s imperatives. And the weight, the gravity, of what is at stake, presses down stronger than things that usually cheer me: nuthatch flickering at the suet, stronger even, sometimes, than the winter moon rising over the lovely roofs of Maxine Street.
But I don’t think one can survive without pleasure. To turn our backs on the opportunities for joy is to surrender to evil, to smallness, to fear, to the twisted need for revenge.
To turn toward pleasure is to show belief in human goodness: our capacity for delight that makes the fight worthwhile. What’s the point of all that we are fighting for if we can’t enjoy the fruits of the hard labor? I’m talking about listening to challenging new music under the stained glass of St. Paul’s on a gloomy Sunday afternoon, or the pleasure of learning a new trick on the laptop, or coming across a great new novel, or seeing a film that triggers a deep conversation. Or the taste of a Honey Crisp apple at the bustling Farmers’ Market. Or the giggle of Sarah’s wanted baby brought into a crazy world. Or the look of snow dappling every branch of a venerable silver maple newly saved from the woodsman’s saw by bunch of neighbors who love trees, even the old ones, like honorable old friends.
These days are fat with what my husband calls “values clarification.” It’s a sterile, hard phrase on my lips, but it’s where we’re at. What is that world we’re making? What are we, after all, in the middle of? I wish I knew. Will our better angels prevail?
“One action is better than a thousand sighs.” That is what Rabbi Yisroel Weingarten of the Chabad House Lubavitch of Eastern Michigan said at a vigil for the eleven Pittsburgh dead at Temple Beth El in October. That vigil was a redeeming moment for me. I believed, at a time we all needed belief, that good can conquer evil.
“What is the remedy for such senseless hatred? What can we possibly do to eradicate it?” the rabbi asked.
Here is his answer: “Hatred can be uprooted from its core by saturating our world with wanton love–pure, undiscriminating, uninhibited, unyielding love and acts of kindness. Today more than ever we need to stress love and unity, positivity and light…even as we grieve and mourn, We must exponentially increase our acts of kindness and goodness.”
So this is where I end my message to you, and I’m talking to myself as well. Let us substitute our thousand sighs with countless acts of wanton love. Let us fight for joy. Happy Holidays.
EVM Editor Jan Worth-Nelson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.