A Study in Complicated Joy


Paul Simon (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

I’m fussing with a tension lately proposed by Paul Simon. In the liner notes for his 2011 album “So Beautiful or So What?” Simon writes, “The trick is, as I know it, is to care like hell 
and not give a damn at the same time.”
 He puts the challenge in harsher terms than I do. I would say, “How can I offer the world mindful appreciation, love and compassion and remain joyful?” As I try to be a responsible, engaged planetary citizen, Rhymin Simon’s question and mine are far more concrete than they first appear.

I’ll let today, Friday, July 19, 2013—my day off–be a case study. Other than skanky hot weather and a mild crick in my neck, I’m great. I indulged in a wee bit more Apostic Red than was prudent last night, but have escaped a hangover. I gave wife Kathy a kiss goodbye as she headed off to chemo nursing work this morning, and her loving smile was medicinal. Then I dropped son Micah off at work. He and I had the following exchange a couple days ago when I picked him up after eight sweaty hours of painting:

Me: You know, Micah, I’m really proud of how hard you’re working.

Micah: Yeah, I’m actually kind of proud of myself. It’s a nice change from hating myself.

A lot of gorgeous living is possible when you kick heroin. My son’s been clean over a year now, a reality that feels like an anvil has been lifted from my spirit.


Anvil: what landed on Wile E. Coyote’s head. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Daughter Elena is scheduled to provide Kathy and me with a grandson in November. We viewed his in-progress pictures this week, which is at once teary and bizarre. In some shots you can make out a sweet-faced baby and in others his head resembles lumpy clay. He’s apparently healthy and, if present proportions hold until adulthood, his self-esteem in at least one department is going to be positive, indeed.


Cute future grandson–still a little lumpy.

As usual, I’ve got my self-indulgent carcass parked at Starbucks, where I’m sipping my fourth iced decaf refill and breathing in and out the present moment’s causes for celebration. Can circumstances take a lousy turn and grind a Nazi heel into today’s happy face? Sure. But for right now, as Simon says, “So beautiful.”

I’ve no desire to stay in any way detached from my fragile joy. No “so what” for me. The tension to be kept productive has to do with silent partners on this Friday walk. How do I care like hell about them without losing my joy? If I’m not mindful of those who’ve been trampled, then my glad day off is selfish and anemic. But if I sacrifice my heart on the altar of everybody else’s suffering, where’s life’s savor?

Two fliers are pinned to the bulletin board behind me.



“16 year old missing from local Residential Treatment Facility since July 14th at 9:30 p.m.”

I’m guessing people who love Bob Fuller and the unnamed teenage girl aren’t whistling and skipping right now. If Elena were missing, I’d be frantic and paralyzed at the same time.

A couple of folks in my congregation are getting schmutzed over by cancer, and one of them is about to enter hospice care. How many are looking mortality in its black maw as I try to decide whether to get yet another refill?

Yesterday I drove about an hour to visit a friend in prison, only to be told that the place was on lockdown. Sorry, no visit. I think of what it must be like to always talk to loved ones separated by thick plexiglass over a telephone—and to look forward to half-an-hour with a friend, only to have it postponed for a week or two.

Heroin Addict Shooting Up

“The warm rush.” Heroin addict shooting up (Credit: Barry Lewis / In Pictures / Corbis)

I read this morning in The New York Times of increasing heroin overdoses in New England these days. Cheap opiate + unpredictable purity + desperate addicts selling themselves for the next fix = auf wiedersehen. “Theresa Dumond, 23,” the article states, “who lives on the streets of Portland, said she sells her body three times a day to support her heroin habit. She lost custody of her two young children about a year ago (‘I can’t keep track’), and their father died.” Shooting up, she says, “It’s the best feeling ever. It’s the warm rush.”

Okay, so there’s a world of hurt—heroin in Maine, cancer in Pennsylvania, vulnerable teenagers missing, God knows where. “So what?” On the whole I bet Paul Simon and I are on the same page, but my trick—to use the songwriter’s term—isn’t detachment, but embrace. It’s making room within my joy for suffering. It’s inviting the junkie and the hospice patient and the lost girl into the day’s mindfulness, the morning and evening prayer, the afternoon siesta.

This way of dealing with the joy-despair tension isn’t pious. Trust me, I’m as screwed up as the next pilgrim, but I refuse to feast on gladness and pretend that others aren’t retching in the dust. So in my spirit I set out napping mats for Bob, Theresa, and all the others and keep them close by as we rest. And in prayer I welcome them to breathe with me.

I like the way this kind of joy works. When I watch hummingbirds drink from the trumpet vine, the wind always carries a hint of manure. Even on dazzling, cloudless days, there’s thunder in the distance. Yes. This gladness seems right.


(Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

6 thoughts on “A Study in Complicated Joy

  1. I love what you say about your “trick” – that it’s embracing. After years of struggling I have come to the same conclusion. Saying “yes”, accepting. Sometimes it’s harder, but then I say yes to my resistance. Thanks for this post and the inspiration it gave me this morning.

  2. This is a powerful and honest article. It’s about an acceptance of what “is”, and maybe not judging the positive or negatives too strongly. Like the yin-yang symbol – you can’t have black without white, they’re two sides of the same coin. For me, coming to terms with this dilemma is still a work in progress, but reading posts like this help. Thanks

  3. Thanks for saying it all, John. I’m trying to embrace the shadow along with the light but sometimes it is tough. I am not quite there yet with surrender and acceptance but I am getting close.

  4. Yeah, surrender and acceptance. I figure I’ll be working on getting there until the bitter end. Peace and thanks, John

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