Surprise with joy

The sentiments of Christmas are so enduring because they so powerfully combine both the nostalgia and idealism intrinsic to human nature. Peace on earth to all humankind – who would openly disparage that? Joy to the world – however you follow that up, or for whatever reason you mention it, it is hardly a declaration that many would take exception to.

But joy is harder and harder to come by as you age. It’s not quite like the joy I observed this morning on my six-year-old nephew’s face, as he unwrapped a Lego Batman set, and his entire hour, or maybe even day, was made joyful. When you are younger, it is much easier to encounter joy, and also despair, and such intensities of emotion in general. But as you get older, joy and similar intensities are necessarily muted due to accumulated experience…and sadly, often worries. It becomes rarer.

As with all things rare, however, it becomes more valuable. And in a way, as that sensation of joy rarefies, it is also refined. It becomes more surprising, and almost always is found in establishing connections. Given the pressures and vagaries of life, adults usually know that time and connection – whether it be enjoying the company of friends or family or even finding connection within oneself between warring sentiments – are priced at premiums. Consequently, they value time spent with others over material expressions of value (if their priorities and ability to communicate are attuned, which is not always the case). Children may not value the joy of explicit connection with others as consciously, but they can more easily reach the joy of being in a particular moment, or receiving a particular thing.

It’s harder and harder to preserve that sensation, nowadays, and even harder to achieve the joy of true connection. We are drowning in information even as we thirst for connection – sitting at home alone because going out is either expensive or doesn’t seem like precisely what we want right now or both, bombarded with images and headlines of surpassing negativity and/or appetite-inducing, as those are what hack our brains all too effectively. It is possible to achieve some connection online, and feel some approximation of joyfulness thereby, but we are physical beings who will always crave the full ability to speak face to face and approach as close a connection as possible.

But we all unconsciously comprehend and are more openly grappling with these phenomena. And so we reach for the trappings and traditions of the holiday season, making the effort to go home both near and far and see friends, family, loved ones. It may be stressful, and it would certainly be easier at first to try to grasp once again the immediate joy that my seven-year-old goddaughter reveled in when she woke up Christmas Day, but past a certain age, deep down you know what type of joy you really wish for. The more difficult, and more refined, joy of connection.

I suppose they are both joys of connection, tied together in a perpetuating loop, for to my nephew and goddaughter, the gifts received were hard evidence of love and attention – children are savvy and thus look for such proof constantly, after all. But once you can fend for yourself, the gifts we look for are more difficult to come by as they necessitate giving first. You must reach out, whether in word or deed, gift or gab, and meet your fellow men and women, your tribe by blood or bond or both, or even acquaintances to strangers, in just the smallest gesture. It’s difficult – and thus surprising when successful. But it’s the holiday season – it is not the most wonderful time of the year, to surprise with joy?

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