James O'Neil/Getty Images
It was a day in late June, gray and depressing, with clouds hanging low. My husband and I were driving to Nova Scotia, Canada, for a much-needed vacation. We traveled glumly, hoping to reach rest and dinner before the rain came. Suddenly, on a lonely stretch of highway, the storm struck. Cascades of water shut us in, making driving impossible. We pulled off onto the shoulder of the road and stopped.
Then, as though someone had turned off a celestial faucet, it ended. A thin radiance, like a spray of gold, spread from the clouds. Every blade of grass was crystalline as the sun flashed on trembling drops. The very road shone, and a rainbow arched across the sky. It was as though this beam of color had been built for us alone. We could hardly speak for awe and joy.
A friend of mine has described a similar experience. She had walked out on a lonely beach at twilight. It was a time of grief for her, and loneliness was what she wanted. Offshore, across the darkening sea, she made out the image of an anchored fishing boat, and in it the figure of a man. My friend told me that after a while, she felt an intense and glowing sense of oneness with that silent figure. It was as though sea and sky and night and those two solitary human beings were united in a kind of profound identity. “I was overtaken by joy,” she said.
Most of us have experienced such lighted moments, when we seem to understand ourselves and the world and, for a single instant, know the loveliness of living beings. But these moments vanish quickly, and we are almost embarrassed to admit that they have ever been.
However, psychologist Abraham Maslow of Brandeis University embarked some years ago on a study of average individuals and found that a great many report such experiences—“moments of great awe; moments of the most intense happiness or even rapture, ecstasy, or bliss.”
In his files, for example, is the story of a young mother. Getting breakfast for her family, she hurried about the kitchen pouring orange juice and coffee, spreading jam on toast. The children were chattering; the sun streamed in on their faces; her husband was playing with the littlest one. All was usual. But as she looked at them, she was suddenly so overcome by how much she loved them that she could scarcely speak for joy.
Here, too, is the story of a man who remembers a day when he went swimming alone and recalls “the crazy, childish joy with which he cavorted in the water like a fish.” He was so overwhelmed by his great happiness at being “so perfectly physical” that he shouted again and again with joy.
Apparently almost anything may serve as the impetus of such a feeling—stars shine on new snow; a sudden field of daffodils; a moment in marriage when hand reaches out to hand in the realization that this other person speaks as you speak, feels as you feel. Joy may wait, too, just beyond danger when you have enough to face a situation and live it out. Whatever the source, such experiences provide the most memorable moments of life.
Joy is much more than happiness. It is “exultation of spirit,” says the dictionary, “gladness; delight; a state of felicity.” Awe and a sense of mystery are part of it; so are humility and gratitude. Suddenly we are keenly aware of every living thing—every leaf, flower, cloud, the mayfly hovering over the pond, the crow cawing in the treetop. “O world, I cannot hold thee close enough!” cried the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay in such a moment.
The most important thing in these peak experiences, says Maslow, is the feeling of these people that they had really glimpsed “the essence of things, the secret of life, as if veils had been pulled aside.”
We see, too, the unity of things—a dazzling vision of the kinship we all have with one another and with the universal life around us. Everyone who has ever had such a moment has noted this quality of “melting into.”
The sad thing is that it happens to most of us so rarely. As we grow older, our lives become buried under the pressures of the workaday world. Joy is not likely to come to us when we are going round and round the tormenting circle of our own busyness.
Instead, it seems that when life’s transiency and frailty are omnipresent, what we have grows sweeter. I remember finding myself seated beside an old gentleman on a train some years ago. He sat quietly looking out the window. His eyes searched each leaf, each cloud, the lines of passing houses, the upturned faces of children watching the train go by.
“It is beautiful, isn’t it?” I ventured at last, intrigued by his absorption.
“Yes,” he said. Then he smiled and waved a hand at a passing hay wagon. “See,” he said. “Hay going to the barn.” And he made it sound as though there could be no greater event than a wagonload of hay on its way to the mow.
He saw the question in my face. “You think it’s strange,” he said, “that just a hay wagon means so much. But you see, last week the doctor told me I have three months to live. Ever since, everything has looked so beautiful, so important to me. You can’t imagine how beautiful! I feel as if I had been asleep and had only just woken up.”
Perhaps we’re more likely to experience a moment of joy if we can admit there is more to life than we have fathomed; if we can acknowledge a world greater than our own. To be sure, the experience of joy is not necessarily religious in a conventional way. But a characteristic is the feeling people have that they have touched the hem of something far beyond themselves.
In my own life, there was a moment of special exaltation. En route by plane to the Midwest, we were flying at a high altitude, and a continent of shining clouds spread beneath us. Often, before and since, I have watched these radiant towers and hillocks of cloud go by. But this time, the scene was haunted by a strange joy so penetrating that the plane seemed not to be there.
I thought of myself as living and walking in a land like that, and I knew in a flash of deep illumination that there was in the universe a light, a stuff, a web, a substance in company with which one would never be lonely. The experience left the compelling certainty that we dwell safely in a universe far more personal, far more human, far more tender than we are.
What if these moments of joy are given to us to reveal that this is the way we are meant to live? What if the clarity of joy is the way we should be seeing all the time? To many people, it seems almost wicked to feel this radiance in a world threatened as ours is. But most generations have known uncertainty and challenge and peril. The more grievous the world, the more we need to remember the luminous beauty at the center of life. Our moments of joy are proof that at the heart of darkness an unquenchable light shines.
Joy is the feeling that we have touched the hem of something far beyond ourselves.