At the Crossroads of Joy and Goodness


May 20, 2014 by Julia

I’ve mentioned recently that when I get confused or stuck in life, I try to focus on just doing the “next right thing,” however small that is. As helpful as this has been for me – a person who tends to over analyze to the point of paralysis – there has also been a hollowness to it when it comes to personal relationships, spontaneity and well, everyday magic. I wouldn’t say that “doing the next right thing” is ever in contradiction with the joys of life, but I might venture that natural joy is not something that can always be accomplished. You can accomplish peace of mind, satisfaction, and confidence through your intentional actions, but tapping into the fountain of joy seems like a whole different matter.


My other concern is that I feel like a bore if I am trying to be a saint. I do earnestly want to do good in the world…but who wants to hang out with that person? (Obviously, I am not claiming to have earned sainthood. I just worry if I get too preoccupied with goodness, I won’t remember how to connect authentically with people. See what I mean about the over-analyzing?)


You know I was reading “Ethical Wisdom: The Search for a Moral Life” by Mark Matousek at the beach a few weeks ago.


A lot of it was little, um, scientific for my taste. (I know, I know.) I prefer psychology and social studies of the more intuitive, warm, nearly mystical variety…this felt distant and almost harsh at times. Author Mark Matousek heavily references mankind’s evolution from apes, too, which is like poking me with a stick, because I am still Christian enough that I don’t love the idea, even if evolution is widely accepted by smart people in search of the truth, and is not necessarily dismissive of the existence of God (especially in this day and age). It still disturbs me to think about, though, so I file it away in the “mysteries of the universe that do not matter to my everyday existence” mental folder, and for the record, I think evolution from apes would disturb me even outside of the Christian context, because monkeys, yuck. Anyway, despite the cold hard science and evolution, the shaping of ethics throughout history is right freaking up my alley. I mean, fascinating much??


And the author rewarded me richly for this interest with a few chapters at the end of the book that got down to the stuff I love: a celebration of all that makes us most human. He kicks ass on subject, actually.

Matousek’s observation on the subject of our dual natures resonates deeply with me:

(From the chapter titled “The Passions,” pages 209-210)

“Aside from lemmings, few animals have a death instinct – they are too self-preserving. We, on the other hand, often act according to our destructive passions, risking self-interest, fortune, freedom – even our lives – in the pursuit of love, truth, and integrity, in our struggle to signify. This siezability by passion is our human cross to bear. We’re born with a perverse streak, an incorrigible need to betray our own standards. Just as we aspire to greatness, we long for our own lower depths as well. We need to trespass our own standards, sometimes, to fall, behave badly, and be inconsistent. The doubleness of our passions requires a mix of darkness and light to make a happy whole. A chink of breathing room is required between who we really are and who we’d be if we were perfect. This helps to explain why Oprah continues to regain the weight and Obama may not want to quit the butts for good. While our black-or-white perfectionism wants to stamp out every darkness and vice, this intolerance has more to do with narcissism, power, fear, and control than it does with human goodness.”


Also, this, from page 211:

“Much has been written about the psychological shadow, the hiding place for our darker instincts. But not enough has been explained regarding the positive function of vice in our lives, and how important it is for us to maintain some internal forbidden zone where we betray ourselves now and then. Falling appears to be what matters. The urge to throw ourselves into the shadowy depths may well be a mental check on vanity, grandiosity, and perfectionism. Without a whiff of forbidden fruit, the personality starts to mildew, shut away in its too-good cage. Vice keeps a moral window ajar and lets in the darkness to keep us authentic. Otherwise life becomes a virtuous pose, a tepid ethical Girl Scout ego trip without the cookies.”



(Check out the author’s website and buy it here)

I mean…that hits the nail on the head for me. It’s what was bothering me about the whole “just do the next right thing” mantra. Which I still stand by wholeheartedly. It’s just that, like most methods, ideas, etc., it doesn’t always apply. Even if I could always do the right thing (which, duh, I haven’t managed to do because of those pesky attributes also known as personal flaws), it would not necessarily provide the true connection to life and people that I long for.


Joy is found in shared laughter at the abyss. “Ha! I don’t know what I’m doing here, and there is a lot of dark unknown, but I don’t give a fuck because we’re 35 years old and stuffing our faces with ice cream at 2 am while sitting on the roof in Hello Kitty t-shirts, ha ha!” It’s in the grace that we extend to ourselves and our friends when we screw up and suddenly the screw-ups just seem part of the wonder of being human, the particulars that make us charming. It’s when things are turned on their head and made beautiful. It’s in unexpected freedoms, a release from oppression that we never saw coming. It’s in moments when the music and food and conversation and scenery all come together to fill up all our senses at once in a way that is impossible to orchestrate through careful planning. It’s in the morbid jokes, the furtive acknowledgment of our fears to one another, as well as the sharing of our most passionate loves. Life is absurd and gorgeous and though there is a lot we can do to make it better, there is no controlling its force in the end. It’s scary and thrilling. The joy is probably found in the free fall, as long as we’ve got a beloved one’s hand to grasp tightly.


So where do goodness and joy meet? I am still figuring that out. I do know I want both.

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2 thoughts on “At the Crossroads of Joy and Goodness

  1. vjthurston says:

    This one’s pretty deep! I’m not sure I understand where the joy and goodness meet, but I think it has more to do with love and relationships than it does with “good” or “bad” behavior. I’ve experienced joy when I know that I am still loved even when I fail to live up to something or someone’s expectations of me. Thought provoking post, Julia, thanks!

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