“Be joyful because it is humanly possible.” Wendell Berry has written a lot of words that eloquently illustrate basic truths, but I think these seven words are some of his most important for humans to hear and embody. Everyone has the opportunity for joy, even if it’s fleeting or hard to recognize or stuck under melancholy. The joy that is stuck or buried is even perhaps the joy that persists when things are challenging – it’s the joy that refuses to let go even when our human experience is wrought with hardship and despair and searching. It’s the joy that is still there even when we can’t see it, or when we let our focus go to the thing with the loudest voice – sometimes joy tends to be soft spoken. This is the joy that makes us human, the joy that is the love at our center, the joy that reminds us that though our emotions are real, we don’t have to let them control our life experience. We don’t have to let our life situation and how we feel about it dictate how we perceive what happens, or what doesn’t. We can be joyful simply because it’s possible.
Years ago I worked in a fitness facility that was set up to support the efforts of people affected by physical disability. There were special adaptive machine settings to accommodate wheelchairs, straps to secure a weak grip onto a bar and a warm water pool for bodies that craved the way swimming allows for limitless movement. The facility attracted all sorts of people – a lot of older adults recovering from stroke, children who were learning to live in a body that just wouldn’t cooperate in doing activities of daily living, and individuals who needed a place to exercise that saw them as whole instead of broken.
There is one woman who I will always remember. She was in her mid 40s and came rolling into the fitness center every Thursday at about 2pm. An accident 10 years prior left her with no use of her lower body, and limited use of her torso and arms. We spent the hour she was there each week moving from one piece of equipment to the next, and I helped her get situated by swinging the seat out so she could roll into place and strapping her hands to the bar or pulley so she could manipulate it. Every workout was the same – I don’t remember ever increasing the weight or seeing any progress in her strength or ability. She just showed up every week, did her circuit and moved on to the rest of her day.
What makes me remember her is that she wasn’t once frustrated or angry. She never showed disappointment in the lack of noticeable physical progress. She didn’t complain about the ice in the winter and how her wheel chair slipped on it, or about how long it took to get in and out of her van, or about having to move from the home she loved because she couldn’t get to the bathroom on the second floor anymore. She spoke of her life before the accident not with longing and regret, but with gratitude for the experiences that she had when she could walk. And she spoke of her current life in the same way. Not with longing for her past, or with anger that she no longer had a body that would do what it once did, but instead with gratitude that she had a body that could carry her through life, and the new experiences and opportunities that occur because of the change in that body.
She took the joy that could have stayed buried under grief and hardship and used it to move through a really difficult transition. She took what could have easily become an avenue into bitterness and turned instead onto a path paved with beauty and appreciation for what the world can be . She didn’t let the accident and its outcome shout louder that the joy that was a part of her core essence. She didn’t let her life situation and how she felt about it dictate how she responded to what happened, or to what didn’t. She chose to be joyful because it was possible.