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I recently got my second dose of the Moderna vaccine. The process at the hospital was smooth and the nurse who gave me the shot had probably given thousands of them by that point.
She put the bandage on my arm, and I thanked her for all the work she was doing. As I got up and walked toward the door, I heard her say to me, “Enjoy your life!” My eyes teared up as I walked out through the double doors, realizing the arithmetic of mortal danger from this pandemic had dramatically changed for me.
As a nurse, she was acutely aware of how many people are no longer able to enjoy life. For her, “Enjoy your life!” wasn’t just well wishes but a responsibility she bestowed on me: This vaccine, this privilege, is a gift that shouldn’t be squandered.
I walked into a tent just outside the building to wait the prescribed 15 minutes to make sure there weren’t any reactions from the vaccine. While I was sitting, I tried to remember when else I had felt this similar sense of gratitude and hope for the future, and, oddly enough, what came to mind was weddings I’ve attended.
At the end of the ceremony when the couple is announced, they kiss at the altar and walk down the aisle past guests applauding their union. If I’m photographing their wedding, I walk backwards a few steps ahead of them, capturing their recessional. They are beaming as they walk, receiving high fives, rose petals, or confetti from their guests.
Once they reach the end of the aisle, we are by ourselves for a moment before the rest of the bridal party joins them, and I get to give them a hug and say congratulations. It’s that moment where I feel the same sense of gratitude and anticipation for the future as I did in the tent. “Enjoy your life, newlyweds!”
Joy makes up most of the word enjoy. I looked it up, and the root is from Old French, meaning “to receive with joy.”
I’ve been thinking a lot about joy in comparison to happiness these days. It’s easy for me to name what will make me happy; I’ve been indoctrinated by ads, media, and capitalism as to what happiness looks like. But joy is harder to pin down. Joy is deeper and messier than happiness.
Joy is also more resilient. I’ve felt joy during good times and bad. Happiness is fragile, determined mostly by outside influences. Joy has a staying power, no matter what is going on around it. David Brooks, in his book Second Mountain, says we experience joy when we have “given over to lives of deep and loving commitment”:
“Happiness tends to be individual; we measure it by asking, ‘Are you happy?’ Joy tends to be self-transcending. Happiness is something you pursue; joy is something that rises up unexpectedly and sweeps over you. Happiness comes from accomplishments; joy comes from offering gifts. Happiness fades; we get used to the things that used to make us happy. Joy doesn’t fade. To live with joy is to live with wonder, gratitude, and hope.”
Joy is what I feel when I hug the couple after the ceremony. A wedding is a union, two people becoming one, the idea being that they are in service to one another. Dating puts a lot of the focus on you: what you want out of the relationship and how you can present yourself to the other person. Marriage, the life you commit to living and creating together, is about lifting each other higher and cultivating the best in one another.
Service, generosity, and empathy are beautiful roots of joy. And those are things we can practice every day, whether we feel particularly happy or not.
Sitting there in the tent, post-vaccine, I felt the immense privilege I had not just that morning, but over the past year. I not only survived, but in many ways I thrived during this pandemic, and I know what a gift that is, one that many others haven’t experienced. It would be such a waste if it ended there, with me feeling grateful and going on my privileged way.
I’ve become the most resilient and most myself when I started to turn all my efforts outwards towards others. Receiving with joy doesn’t end in myself, but is made complete when you share it with others.
Follow Along Upstream
And feel a little less alone on your quest to your most courageous work.