On Christmas mornings my brother, sister, and I had to wait patiently upstairs until we heard the music playing. Then, at last, the trumpets and voices singing “Joy to the world!” beckoned us down to the living room, with presents piled high under the brightly lit Christmas tree and stockings filled to the brim hung by the roaring fire. As a child, I experienced Christmas as a most magical and wonderful time of year, but it wasn’t just about getting presents. Strangers greeted each other with good cheer, wishing each other a “Merry Christmas.” Children visited the homes of the elderly and housebound, brought them cookies and sang carols. People were different – kinder, friendlier, more open-hearted, more forgiving. These are the true gifts invoked by the Christmas season, and I often wondered why we couldn’t continue these all year. I still do.
It is the question posed by the story of the Christmas truce, when during World War I, the German and British soldiers for a brief time silenced their guns, cannons, and enmity, crossed into no-man’s land, and shared some Christmas cheer.[i] How could they in one moment share a bit of chocolate and brandy, stories of loved ones at home, play a game of soccer, and sing Christmas carols together – and in the next, shoot and kill each other? Why couldn’t the friendship and good will continue into the next day and the next and the next? It begs the question, how would the world of those who profit from war and oppression stay in power if the joy invoked by Christmas continued all year? This is the deeply radicalizing potential of Christmas – of finding our deepest connections, of knowing the joy of which we are capable, of which the world is capable.
In his book, Inciting Joy, Ross Gay sets about to explore the habits and rituals that make joy more available to us. What, Gay asks, “incites joy?” As he illustrates throughout his volume, joy is readily available to us all, all the time – whether in a gardener sharing her vegetables, or neighborhood kids enjoying a game of pick-up basketball, or in precious moments of caring for a loved one in their dying. He goes so far as to suggest that joy may be fundamentally “tangled up” with pain and sorrow, that “joy emerges from how we care for each other through those things” (3). Indeed, one of my greatest moments of joy in the past year was after a huge snowstorm when my neighbor, who was plunged through with grief over the sudden and unexpected death of her husband, and I got out the snow tube and raucously slid and spun down the driveway, laughing all the way. Witnessing her joy amidst her sorrow brought greater joy to my heart than the glorious ride itself. What incites your joy? It is a question we would all benefit from exploring.
But it is Gay’s second question – what does joy incite? – that is the more provocative. Incite – to provoke, stir up, arouse – as in, to incite revolution. Gay answers his own question: “My hunch is that joy is an ember for or precursor to wild and unpredictable and transgressive and unboundaried solidarity. . . . My hunch is that joy, emerging from our common sorrow – might draw us together. It might depolarize us and de-atomize us enough that we can consider what, in common, we love. . . .” (9). “The sharing of joy,” wrote Audre Lorde, “ . . . forms a bridge between the sharers which can be the basis for understanding much of what is not shared between them, and lessens the threat of their difference.” (56) Consider for a moment the creative potential, or as Gay says, the “transgressive” possibilities this lessening the threat of difference between us, the depolarization of us, the love between us could bring? It could up-end the power of those who profit from this polarization and enmity, inviting the subversive possibilities of the “unboundaried solidarity” of being on each other’s side vis à vis the capitalist patriarchy, creating just and right relations with each other and the earth. Joy incites an uprising of the heart.
In an interview on CNN, Gay related that as he had become more aware of the ways that institutions and structures have been designed to “enforce destitution,” his questioning of that brought him to recognize the potential of radical joy to counter these systems. As Lorde wrote: “That deep and irreplaceable knowledge of my capacity for joy comes to demand from all of my life that it be lived within that knowledge that such satisfaction is possible. . . . Once we begin to feel deeply all the aspects of our lives, we begin to demand from ourselves and from our life-pursuits that they feel in accordance with that joy which we know ourselves to be capable of” (57). Such joy could empower us to demand of our relationships, our work, our worship, our institutions, and our lives, that they be fulfilling of our deepest purposes, soul-enhancing avenues of self-expression, self-determination, and meaning.[ii] Joy incites transformational change.
“…One must keep a freshness and source of joy intact,” wrote Albert Camus. How often have I referenced this passage? Yet, I have usually focused on the part of the sentence I quoted here. What grabs my attention now is the first part of the sentence — “In order for justice not to shrivel up . . .” (168). Joy is essential for the preservation of justice. Is this not, after all, what the glad tidings of Christmas are about – the restoration of justice into a world out of balance and beleaguered by dominance and power; the bringing of love, equity, and mercy to the oppressed; the busting up of hierarchies and the recognition of the divinity in all beings – even a babe born in the humblest of circumstances. Joy incites justice.
Camus, Albert. 1970. Lyrical and Critical Essays. Ed. and with Notes by Philip Thody. Trans. Ellen Conroy Kennedy. NY: Vintage-Knopf.
Gay, Ross. 2022. Inciting Joy: Essays. Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books.
Lorde, Audre. 1984. Sister Outsider: Essays & Speeches by Audre Lorde. Trumansburg: New York, The Crossing Press.
Poet Ross Gay on his new book, ‘Inciting Joy’ – CNN Style
Young, Iris Marion. 1990. Justice and the Politics of Difference
[i] This story was beautifully set to music by John McCutcheon, “Christmas in the Trenches.” Christmas in the Trenches – written and performed by John McCutcheon – YouTube
[ii] This is inspired by Iris Marion Young’s brilliant analysis of oppression and domination, especially in the workplace, in her Justice and the Politics of Difference.
BIO: Beth Bartlett, Ph.D., is an educator, author, activist, and spiritual companion. She is Professor Emerita of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at the University of Minnesota-Duluth. She also served as co-facilitator of the Spirituality Task Force of NWSA. She is the author of numerous books and articles, including Journey of the Heart: Spiritual Insights on the Road to a Transplant, Rebellious Feminism: Camus’s Ethic of Rebellion and Feminist Thought, and Making Waves: Grassroots Feminism in Duluth and Superior. She has been active in feminist, peace and justice, and rights of nature and climate justice movements, and has been a committed advocate for the water protectors.
10 thoughts on “Radical Joy by Beth Bartlett”
Your sharing this quote from Audre Lord, “The sharing of joy, . . . forms a bridge between the sharers which can be the basis for understanding much of what is not shared between them, and lessens the threat of their difference,” touched me deeply. It helped explain the unexpected bond I feel to a young woman I barely know. We were in a workshop when one of us made a clever pun. Only the two of us reacted with uncontrolled laughter. It was the joyous laughter of a shared moment of insight. We were laughing so hard tears formed.
No one else in the room reacted as strongly, but we shared this deep “wild and unpredictable and transgressive and unboundaried solidarity” at that moment. Etched in my memory is this woman’s face as we rode that joyous wave of emotion together. Our differences disappeared at that moment!
Thank you for helping me to see what I experienced that day with her through a new lens.
I love your story of shared joy! Thank you so much for sharing that.
What a wonderful essay! So many elements of joy I hadn’t thought about before! It is so true that joy can upend all those things that make it hard for us to make change, to transform ourselves and our world. This makes me think of the organization that brought music and dancing to long voting lines, especially in 2020, making them a party instead of a chore. Thanks for sharing both your memories and these important ideas and authors.
Thanks so much, Carolyn. Joy is such a transformative force. I love the example you thought of. That changed the whole dynamic of those voting lines!
An inspiring way to look at joy – what it does for us and what it might encourage us to demand of society’s systems. I had never thought of things that way!
I’m glad it stirred new perspectives in you. Audre Lorde did that for me decades ago, and I love the way Ross Gay in many ways says something similar. Thank you!
I loved this essay – made the first comment a long one – and it isn’t here –
Thanks, Sara. I’m sorry your long comment didn’t show up.
Thanks for this post, which mirrors my own experience and beliefs. My family celebrated Christmas when I was a girl. My four cousins joined my sister and me overnight and we all hung stockings. The rule was that when you woke up you could get up quietly and play quietly with what was in your stocking (often a doll) until the grownups were dressed and downstairs. Then the Jewish relatives all came for a chaotic Christmas dinner of Jewish delicacies.
I, too, revelled in the gift of strangers greeting one another and making way for each other on the street during the Christmas season. Perhaps we’re still in it – four people thanked the bus driver this afternoon.
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I loved what you wrote in your response to my post. Thank you!