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joy: the practicalities

May 8, 2012

I’ve been thinking a lot about psychology, and how it doesn’t go far enough. Maybe somehow combining it with sociology would work. Or nesting it in a larger system in some other way.

Because sometimes — like with joy — I have the raw ingredients inside me, but I also need (something I usually call) ‘scaffolding’, which is what I had in Indianapolis that I don’t have in Maryland.

Say joy is making a cake. From inside of me, I offer fresh eggs and a special kind of sugar (or honey or maple syrup). But without a bowl to mix things in, and an electric mixer, and a cake pan, and a heating source, there isn’t going to be any cake. ‘Scaffolding’ is all the things (tools, structure, infrastructure) that make baking a cake possible.

Notice also that I didn’t say from inside of me comes all the ingredients. Other beings (people) are key parts of the chemical reactions.

Or imagine joy is (the process of) a bee pollinating flowers. One day a particular bee finds itself living in a hive that is far away from all flowers. So the bee doesn’t have the ‘structure’ in place that it needs to do what it does best. Instead, our bee takes up knitting. And soon all the bees are wearing a scarf. Which is kind of nice but our bee would really prefer to be flying around visiting flowers, except that there aren’t any. So she knits, and mopes, and feels bad about herself.

A psychological approach seems to suggest that our bee should somehow create flowers out of herself, and then she will have flowers to pollinate. Except that the kind of energy it takes to create structure (or scaffolding) is completely different than the kind of energy used for flying and pollinating. It is sort of possible to kludge F&P energy so that it can be used to create structure, but doing so drains energy faster and makes it harder to recover from it, and the structure created is not a good structure. It won’t function the way the structure is supposed to function. And then when our bee tries to F&P after all, she will find she doesn’t have any energy to do anything.

It’s like the mindset where you do your duty first, and then if you have anything left over, you do other, more enjoyable, things ‘for fun’. Apparently there are people who are really good at understanding duty, and producing energy that can be used very effectively for that function. So naturally, to those people, doing things the way they prefer (and they prefer it that way at least partly because that’s what they themselves are good at) makes the most sense. These sorts of people also tend to be people who think everyone should be exactly like them: High authoritarians seeking homogeneity.

If you can even get them to understand that the stuff they dismiss as ‘for fun’ is actually important to you, and what you are good at, and it isn’t nearly as easy as it looks, they will still insist that duty is more important, and therefore needs to come first. And your stuff can come afterwards, if you still have time or energy. (Which of course you won’t. And I think they have to know that, but they don’t think it matters.)

By the way, I’m not so much hearing this directly from people in my life anymore, but these attitudes remain firmly ensconced in introjects I still have. So even when Spouse explicitly encourages me to ‘find something you like to do and just do it!’, I struggle with internal pressure that makes me feel guilty about trying to do just that.

Another issue is that I’m process oriented. And joy for me is a process, not a result. That’s why I said, ‘say joy is making a cake’, rather than ‘say joy is a cake’. When I co-create joy, if there is also a tangible result ‘at the end’ (like a work of art), that’s a wonderful bonus. But it’s not the reason I’m doing it. Joy is its own reward.

Spouse seems to be results oriented. So when I don’t have anything tangible to show, to him it looks like I haven’t been doing anything. Just thinking about things, experimenting, and learning stuff can be all I was really going for in a given situation. (That particular configuration doesn’t usually produce joy, but it is helping me figure out why it doesn’t. So it’s definitely valuable and worthwhile.)

+++

On Ana Mardoll’s blog, I’ve been participating in a thread about the pleasures of grimdark fiction (specifically, the HBO series A Game of Thrones) vs. ‘fluff’, where fluff seems to mean anything that’s happier or more nuanced.

I had noticed before, and am definitely noticing there, that there seem to be a lot of people whose emotional range is concentrated mostly in the grim/painful/upsetting/horrible part of the spectrum, and who seem to experience ‘anything that isn’t that’ as an undifferentiated lump. They revel in dark dystopias, probably because they feel them more? If something doesn’t hurt, though, no need to parse out if it’s joy or delight or whimsy or whatever; the important thing is, it’s Not Serious, and It Doesn’t (Really) Matter, so let’s ignore it or downplay it. Which as a personal choice is fine. But it seems to sort of be the default. People like me who think/feel very differently don’t get widespread social approval for our position.

That’s not quite it, though. I don’t need social approval, widespread or otherwise, before I act for my own reasons. But I would like some recognition that my choice is just as valid as grimdark. That I am adding something of value to the world, even if it’s not to the taste of many (most?) people.

That’s why I considered using the word ‘discipline’, with caveats. Because discipline is Something Serious and Valuable.

A friend suggested ‘practice’ instead, as it is used in yoga and mindfulness. That works for me, although I might append ‘spiritual’ to it. But the words I’m using (or struggling to find) aren’t for me — they are for other people, who live within a different paradigm. Which is again where psychology falls short. I’m not supposed to care about what other people think — if they don’t respect me, that’s their problem. Which is true as far as it goes, but it’s not very helpful when I lived in a world populated with millions of people like them, and hardly any people like me. People who receive social and emotional support, and encouragement, do better than people who don’t. People who see themselves (or people like them) reflected everywhere they look have a sturdier base to branch out from. Some of them will be innovators, inventors, designers, artists. And they will have a built-in audience.

I’m trying to innovate, and I know I can’t be the only person like me. But who are my peers? Who are my readers? In Indianapolis, ironically enough, I belonged to a loose confederation of artists centered in Broad Ripple. Inspiration flowed freely in all directions. I felt secure enough to experiment (to a certain extent).

Here, things are more spread out. More people means more ideas, which is theoretically good for art, but it’s also harder to find a local group that you click with. I love the things I’ve learned about through my membership in the Potomac Fiber Arts Guild, but I haven’t made any friends, or even friendly acquaintances. The people I have talked to there, while pleasant, are in circumstances so different from mine that there is essentially no common ground. And meetings are far enough away geographically that I rarely attend.

I like that I escaped the Midwest; it’s much more cosmopolitan here. But if there is a mid-Atlantic aesthetic sensibility, it doesn’t seem any closer to mine than the Midwest’s was. I need some kind of group where we riff ideas from each other. I need frequent interactions with other creative people; I need complex and attractive surroundings to explore on foot, so I can encounter neighbors that are human and nonhuman, and so I can patronize human establishments, where I might meet like-minded people.

In Indianapolis, a wide variety of places and configurations made all of that possible. Although technically most were ‘across town’ from our apartment, they were easy and quick drives of less than 20 miles.

Here, most of the really cool stuff is either in Washington DC, or in the Greater Beltway area (south-central Maryland, northern Virginia). Which means driving at least 40 miles, just to reach the nearest Metro station. Or driving 50 or 60 miles to the guild meeting, to check out an art exhibit, visit a botanic garden, etc. And when I get there, I won’t know anybody. If I do meet someone, they won’t live close enough to me to make it easy to get together. Case in point: my friend Literata lives in Northern Virginia. If I’m extremely lucky (no traffic tie ups, no major delays on Metro), it may only take me 1.5 hours to get to her place. When I’ve been less lucky (most of the time), it takes between 2 and 3 hours, one way. That’s not feasible very often. Logistics for long trips that I’ll be making alone require me to use ‘scaffolding’ energy, which means that by the time I get to my destination — knowing I have to keep some energy in reserve for the trip home — I’m already like a limp dishrag before the event even starts. ‘Sparkle’ is completely impossible. And that means that people I meet under those circumstances never really encounter me being my ‘best self’.

What can I try next?

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