Sunday, September 20, 2015

I Wish You Joy

Most people don't understand that very funny people are often extremely serious.

I, on the other hand, have taken notice of this misunderstanding my entire adult life. It is a subject of interest to because I myself have been branded "serious" more times than I can count, and yet people don't usually elaborate whether they are making an observation, or just accusing me of doing something wrong. (Sometimes the two go hand in hand.)

I remember walking the halls of my junior high school many many years ago, just minding my own business, and having other students yell out "Smile!" to me as they passed. I was usually taken aback, as I did not realize at the time that my face needed adjustment; I did not realize that their day was so greatly affected by my display of emotion, or lack thereof. I did get the impression that I was doing something wrong, but I was not sure what that might be. I now realize that my only crime was not living up to others' expectations, and, perhaps, bringing to the forefront of their awareness the idea of existential dilemma. But I shy away from granting them too much credit for thought.

I agree that I am a rather serious person. But I have never felt the need to "smile" to cover this up, as if there is a required way of being when out in the world. I suspect that the commenters in the halls of my junior high were, at their best, just wanting me to be "happy", and at their worst, trying to comfort themselves. But why were they even bothered by my seriousness? Let me clarify that what I mean by serious is that I think about things--a lot--and I observe just about everything that is happening around me. Now, I suspect that I do this because I am curious about things, but there is another reason; the narrative of my life required serious editing once I hit my teenage years.

This edit necessitated a great deal of thought, since I did not have much to reference from my public education or catholic upbringing that might have been helpful. I learned to label this practice "seriousness" not because it lacked humor and smiles in the hall, but because it often included solitude and brow furrowing, while lacking a certain carefree frivolity. In other words, I smile when I have something to smile about. Is this a rule? No, it is not. But I have found that frivolity, especially the carefree version, mostly works against contemplation--while being perfectly suited to social engagement. In days of yore there was not so much engagement in my seriousness, because contemplation is best done alone, but don't mistake that for a lack of humor.

Because I am funny, goddammit.

Louie CK, sad clown
It seems that Joe and Jane Public are genuinely shocked to find out that their favorite comic is in fact a very serious person. Everyone I know seemed shocked when Robin Williams committed suicide, not understanding how someone so funny could be depressed enough to want to end his life. Well, the question I have for you at this point is: Where do you think funny comes from? True humor comes from pain, and the best comics mine their own to come up with it. Currently, Louis CK is at the top of this game, so if you like him, you know what I mean. I suspect that Robin Williams was not able to mine his pain so well in the long run, and perhaps that is why he was depressed. I also suspect that this is why his humor was not funny to me, since it relied on shtick more often than pain. I saw him as a clown, not a comic. But even clowns take off the mask eventually.

Back when I was acting, I was a comic actor who occasionally did drama. When I was required to be funny, I would literally do anything for a laugh, unselfconsciously. My aim was to use my insecurities for the audience's benefit, and ultimately, for mine. To me, it was about triumph--by using my pain to make people laugh, my pain no longer hurt me so much. It was still there, it just had little to no power over my choices. If you confront your worst fear in front of others and survive, you may find it can no longer terrify you. I like to think that I was absolutely hysterical in my comedy roles (sometimes I was, sometimes I wasn't), because I had a lot of pain to mine, and the control I had onstage over my audience was preferable to the control that my pain had over me for so many years.

I am not acting anymore. Instead, I have gone into the rather serious profession of psychology, which suits me to a tee. But lately I have noticed that I am missing the art of humor a bit. Mind you, this is not an indication that I no longer have pain to mine.

I recently attended my final meeting with a men's process group that I had been participating in for nearly a year, and some of the members were sharing feedback with me. One of the guys said to me that he would miss my contributions to the group--that I always got him thinking. But he also said that there was one "side" of me that he regretted never seeing--he never saw me "laugh out loud". I blinked with surprise, realizing that he was right, at least about how I presented in the group; suddenly I concluded that my seriousness was taking over the entire house. I have been so intent in the last couple of years on building a private practice and so careful about not spending money that I have choked off a lot of "fun", so to speak. I have stifled my magic, semi-retired my sexuality, locked up my laugh, tampered my colorful creativity.

This was done in the name of my career, which is very important to me, and I do enjoy what I do. But I realize that, beyond the need to support myself, this career has taken on a disproportionate amount of importance primarily because it is the one thing that is all mine, or so I think. I feel on one hand that it is all I have, and on the other hand I feel that I don't even need anything else. Have you ever had the sense in your life that you have complete control over something? Though it can never truly happen, we can still get the feeling from time to time. And for a person like me, where for many years I wanted nothing more than to be left alone so I could take care of myself, this feeling is comforting and powerful. I think I was willing to sacrifice everything else for this level of control. In the process group, I suspect that they were more aware of the cost to my life than I was, and I also suspect that this is what they were trying to tell me during my final meeting. (This, by the way, is the value of group therapy--becoming aware of how you present in life.)

Control is alluring for many reasons, but I don't think it was always alluring in the way it is now. I see control today as a constructed response to a cultural effect: the lie that there is an order to things that benefits us. Since order, or not, is a result of cause and effect (not divine intention as many believe), there is often a little tiny part of us that spends some of the day in a bat-shit crazy panic. You might know this as anxiety. The antidote to that panic is feeling a sense of control or knowing. But when you replace an illusion with an illusion, it just delays the inevitable breakdown and reassessment. What usually works for me is to stare randomness of order in the face and form a response where I make out as well as I can, given what I know. Sometimes I err on the side of caution in this process, becoming very serious in the act. I would do well to remember that laughter never hurts when one is confronting a lack of complete control.

Before the therapy group ended for the evening, this same man said one more thing to me, which I appreciated the most. He said, "I wish you joy." He did not say that he wished me "happiness", because then I would have asked him to define his terms. He said "joy", which is an emotion, and not a fictional state of being. In this moment, I felt that he truly "got" me. Has anyone ever wished this to you and really meant it?

The dictionary definitions for joy are inaccurate and vague, linking it to feelings of happiness or success, without ever really describing what it is. That is like describing green by linking it to a marker pen. So let me give it a try.

As I said, joy is an emotion. So what does that look like? JOY is living fully. JOY is celebrating what or who is in front of you, whether you know what it is/who they are or not. JOY is being surprised by someone's love. JOY is seeing the effect of your caring towards others. JOY is holding the hot jerky movement of a baby. JOY is the pleasant activation of various senses individually or all at once. JOY is feeling appreciated. JOY is giving and sharing, knowing that you won't run out. Joy is creating art. JOY is eating summer strawberries from your garden. JOY is listening to music as a primary activity, not as background noise. JOY is grass on you bare feet, swimming naked in the ocean, riding you bike in a cool summer rain, doing yoga in the sunshine.

You might call these things happiness, but I don't. I see happiness as a marketing term, made up in order to sell things; it refers to a "mood state" or a "personality" (he is a happy person) that has little to no relation to an experience in the moment. Rabbi Irwin Kula, the writer of one of my favorite books, Yearnings, says that "Being happy isn't only about feeling good, but also about doing good." I like to think that he uses the term "happy" as I use the term "joy", because I like the definition. The form of joy he describes is one of many things we can feel throughout the day, and its contextual and transitional nature is why it feels so welcome when it happens. It is not an expectation, in the way I see culturally defined happiness, so it often surprises us in the best way. And it is relational, whereas happiness it often associated with personal happiness--something you feel about yourself, by yourself. Joy can be felt in solitude, but even then it is still the result of a relationship with nature, silence, or gratitude. And doing good, going back to Kula's definition, is a relational activity. "Happiness is," he writes, "therefore not just a feeling or emotion but a profound connection to the world (italics mine)." I strongly suggest reading Kula's book to learn even more about joy, love, relationship, and more. I recommend it to nearly everyone I know!

In a recent attempt to have a profound connection to the world, I attended a men's weekend gathering in the mountains below Big Bear through the group CalComMen. My intention for going to the event was to renew, through community, my creative and playful leanings. As I have said, I can be a bit serious, and since devoting myself to taking exams and building a practice, I have certainly nudged out play, at the very least. I saw this camp experience as an opportunity to leave the world behind and fan the creative flames and let play run the house for a few days. 

It worked. I hiked without lights in the mountains. I swam nude. I wore blue eyeshadow to the "Rainbow Dance". I read nasty haiku in the Talent/No Talent show. I canoed. I participated in a heart circle. I played bongos in a drum circle. I connected strongly to other men--young, older, cisgender, trans, big, small, and otherwise. And in the course of the weekend, during my re-ignition, within a community, I came to fulfill the generous wish bestowed on me by the caring process group member. I experienced joy. Sometimes it is required that we move out of our familiar context in order to have a new experience of ourselves. Nature can often be the ideal place to move into.

Back in the flat-lands of Hollywood, the tingle of joy has not deserted me. Its glow warms me and reminds me that it is readily accessible via connection and play. The other morning it rained in Los Angeles, and you know what I did at 6am when I woke up? I walked outside and let the rain hit my skin. It was wonderful. It was joyful. And as it was wished upon me, I wish the same upon you.

Now get out there and play a little...with others.

Me--serious from a very young age.