A priest who has been a good friend for 33 years, and who has provided wisdom, comfort, intellectual stimulation and much laughter, had supper here Monday night. He had just returned from Liberia, a journey he makes every year. (Liberia is on the west coast of Africa; it’s the size of Acadiana. It was founded by freed slaves from America, and it’s government is modeled after ours. It’s the only African state to form a nation without a revolution, though in recent decades, there has been political upheaval and violence. The result is a nation of people who live below the international poverty line. Another result is orphaned children, including those who live in the orphanage where my friend goes every year.)
I of course asked about his trip, and while he told me about the orphanage, which was founded by a wealthy Californian some years ago, he showed me pictures of the children on his I-phone. Children from six years old to teen-agers were lined up waiting to go into their school.The boys wore khaki pants and white shirts–they have two of each–and the girls wore navy blue jumpers: they also have a Sunday dress. The boys’ pants and shirts were immaculate, not a wrinkle anywhere. “They iron their unforms every morning,” my friend said. He showed me a picture of the laundry room: concrete tubs with old-fashioned wash boards on top. “The mission group gave them a generator, so now they have electricity twelve hours each day.”
English is the official language of Liberia; French is taught in the school. There is also a patois, much like the pidgin English developed in islands when the crews of western country ships make contact. There are universities in Liberia: tuition is one thousand dollars a year, but that may as well be a million, given the poverty. So the children at the orphanage decided to have a fund-raiser, though, my friend said, given the country’s poverty they would be lucky to raise $300.
Then he showed me the photos that led to the title of this piece. The children have a choir which would be part of the fund-raiser show. But dancing was added, with an instructor to teach the children the steps. No band, no piano, just a bongo drum. I watched in delighted amazement as the teen-agers learned the steps. They looked exactly like American teen-agers getting ready for a show: pauses to discuss a sequence, dancers becoming more confident in their skill–and such joy on each face. Then the little ones, six and seven years old, got up and began to follow the older ones. They picked up the steps quickly, faces filled with joy as they danced.
One of the most famous phrases in the Declaration of Independence is the one promising “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” And that, to me, defines happiness. To be happy means different things to different people, but most of the time, it includes a desire for something. “If I get that promotion, I’ll be happy.” “If I win the tournament I’ll be happy.” A person sets a goal and pursues it, hoping to find happiness if the goal is achieved. The problem is that, unless the goal is something like losing weight or building character, other people’s actions affect our ability to reach our goal. The boss promotes someone else. Someone else wins the tournament. The stress of waiting for the goal to be achieved, and the disappointment when it isn’t, combine to make us unhappier than we were before.
That’s why joy is a much simpler emotion. For one thing, joy has nothing to do with set goals and attempts to reach them. The title of one of my favorite poems by William Wordsworth is “Surprised By Joy.” That says it all. We can’t court joy, we can only welcome it when it surprises us. Joy comes in all forms–a baby’s first laugh–the first hummingbird of the season–a sunrise over a beach–seeing a loved one’s face after a long absence–and a myriad of other human experiences that catch our hearts and expand them, opening them to welcome joy. A character in one of my short stories tells another character that she’s learned you can’t hunt for joy. You just have to ready for it when it comes.