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Finding Joy in the Face of Adversity

By Mary Marczak, Director of Urban Family Development and Evaluation

My maternal grandmother (and namesake) was my kindred spirit. No one made me feel more OK during the abrupt transition at age 10 from an orphanage in South Korea to a family home in Minnesota than my Polish grandmother. I think she identified with my experience because she came to the United States from Poland as an elementary-age child and had to make her way in a new world. So her particular habit of saying, “The world is going to hell in a hand basket!” always jarred me. Gahh!! What does that mean!? How much should I be worried?

My early childhood years in South Korea were very much affected by the aftermath of the Korean War. So for me, the world today seems a bit more unsteady, geopolitics a little scarier, and with national leaders acting in ways opposite of what we try to teach our children about how to act toward others…While I never quite figured out what my grandmother’s phrase actually meant, I am beginning to grasp the sentiment.

‘Book of Joy’

When I am feeling a little anxious, there is nothing like the comfort of turning to people who have suffered greatly and come out of it full of joy. So this fall, I am learning from two great spiritual teachers, one Buddhist and one Christian, who describe themselves as “two mischievous people” — the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu. Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World was written by this duo, with the help of writer Douglas Abrams, and a second read-through is bringing me new insight.

The book was written after Abrams spent a week chatting with the two spiritual leaders about this question: How do we live a life of joy in the face of adversity?

In the book, Abrams recollects how the week was spent mostly laughing. The two men constantly teased each other and acted more like a comedy duo than two venerable spiritual teachers. They recounted moments like when at a function for dignitaries the Dalai Lama took the cap off Desmond Tutu’s head and put it on his own head, prompting Tutu to admonish him in a whisper, “Remember we are on camera, act more like a holy man!” Abrams notes on page 209 that the two spiritual leaders seem “amused by everything, taking pleasure in whatever is going on, not taking things too personally, and not worrying or taking offense at anything that is happening.”

Photo credit: Carey Linde via Wikimedia Commons.

The Dalai Lama and Tutu underscore that the source of joy is a compassionate concern for others’ well-being. On page 12, they write, “Joy does not save us from the inevitability of hardship and heartbreak. As we discover more joy, we can face suffering in a way that ennobles rather than embitters. We have hardship without becoming hard. We have heartbreak without being broken.”

Eight Pillars of Joy

Much of the book discusses their eight pillars of joy — and from these, I find the greatest lessons and the greatest challenges for living in joy every day. Here’s what the book says about the eight pillars.

Pillar 1: Perspective 

Every event has multiple angles. The wider the perspective you take when seeing an event, the less worry and anxiety you feel, and in turn the greater joy you will experience (paraphrase; page 194).

Photo credit: BK via Flickr.

Pillar 2: Humility 

We are simply human, with the same potential for constructive emotions and destructive emotions. All humans have the same desire to have a happy day, a happy life (paraphrase; page 203).

Pillar 3: Humor 

The two teachers show an “ability to joke, laugh and poke fun at the ordinary pieties that so righteously violates expectations. They skewered status, injustice, and evil all with the power of humor. They have everyone around them constantly giggling, and belly laughing. Often, their reaction to anything they hear was to laugh. We are much better and find joy when there is not too much seriousness — laughter, joking is much better. Then we can be completely relaxed” (page 216).

Pillar 4: Acceptance

Accept the reality of the situation. Accept life in all its pain, imperfection, and beauty. “Why be unhappy about something if it can be remedied? And what is the use of being unhappy if it cannot be remedied?” (page 223)

Pillar 5: Forgiveness

No one is incapable of forgiving and no one is unforgivable. “Forgive” doesn’t mean “forget.” But without forgiving, there is a possibility to develop hatred. It doesn’t mean you accept or approve of wrongdoing. But you choose not to develop anger and hatred and not to lose sight of the humanity of the person (paraphrase, page 231).

Photo credit: BK via Flickr.

Pillar 6: Gratitude 

To be fortunate for living another day, to not waste each day given. “Recognition of all that holds us in the web of life and all that has made it possible to have the life that we have and the moment that we are experiencing” (page 242).

Pillar 7: Compassion

Connecting the feeling of empathy with acts of kindness. Developing a serious concern for the plight of others (paraphrase, page 253).

Pillar 8: Generosity

When we are closed in on ourselves, we tend to be miserable. We are made for goodness. Caring and giving is in our nature (paraphrase, page 267).

Finding Joy Every Day

How to start finding joy? One page 63, the Dalai Lama says the following:
I wake up and I set my intention for the day. That this day should be meaningful. Meaningful means, if possible, serve and help others. If not possible, then at least not to harm others… The goal is to be a reservoir of joy, an oasis of peace, a pool of serenity that can ripple out to all those around you. Joy is contagious.
I try to follow the Dalai Lama’s practice to set my intention each day. But, because I know myself and my tendency to bite off more than I can chew, I set intention related to only one of the pillars each day so it is doable. And, as many of my colleagues know, I live my everyday life filled with humor, so I don’t choose that pillar — it would be too easy for me.

The day of writing this, I chose generosity. I went online and contributed to the University’s Community Fund Drive. I also made change for a $20 bill in case on my drive home I see people on street corners with signs asking for money. It’s just my intention for the day. How about you? What people, writing, or concepts do you turn to in times of adversity? I’d love to hear how you find ways to live in joy every day.

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