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What joy means when there’s nothing to look forward to, according to people who’ve lived through dark times

Mary Grace Garis

Mary Grace GarisMay 14, 2020

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During World War II, Alice Hoaglund, now 87, and her family relied on rationing tickets for food. Her mother would turn in tickets at the local Jersey City butcher for meat, and “when my mother ran out of those little tickets, we couldn’t have meat,” she says. “We lived on Spam.”

Despite being aware of the financial issues her family navigated during her childhood years—being born of the Great Depression and raised amid World War II—Hoaglund was able to find solace in simple freedoms like bike-riding, and she remembers feeling lucky on the whole. Her father only worked two days per week as a deckhand, but it was enough to pay the rent, and that alone felt like a luxury when the unemployment rate rose to 24.9 percent.

Hoaglund’s perspective and wisdom feels especially useful right now, as many of us navigate a new normal. The situation we find ourselves in due to the COVID-19 pandemic looks very different from the war-torn times Hoaglund grew up in, but it has similarly ushered in an era of profound uncertainty—about life plans, public health, and livelihood in the face of economic decline. While health and safety remain the rightful top priorities, it may be hard not feel as though life has transformed into an exercise of existing more so than living. So, what does joy mean during a time like this, when there’s no visible light at the end of the tunnel?

The secret for survival of spirit may be in looking backward, to people like Hoaglund who have weathered dark times, rather than into any sort of forward-casting crystal ball. When I asked other survivors of dark periods to recount the ways they found joy during those times, a guiding pattern emerged: Practice gratitude for the freedoms you still have, commit to a ritual or two that can keep you present, and embrace the people worth living for. Below, learn how this three-step joy equation of sorts worked for others and how you, too, can work to find joy in uncontrollable times.

What does joy mean amid hard times you can’t control?

In many ways, finding a baseline of control is a prerequisite for being able to access joy—and that control is hard to come by right now. “When so much in life is out of our control—particularly in the dark uncertainty of the pandemic—the one thing we can control is our own attitude,” says Carla Marie Manly, PhD, clinical psychologist and author of Joy From Fear. “As such, although our choices and sense of personal power may feel very limited right now, we each can control how we face our significant personal challenges.”

“Although our choices and sense of personal power may feel very limited right now, we each can control how we face our significant personal challenges.” —Carla Marie Manly, PhD, clinical psychologist

While she didn’t live through the Second World War like Hoaglund, Dr. Manly did glean this wisdom from personal experiences with great strife. Focusing on optimism and practicing gratitude for what’s left helped her see blessings clearly during uncertain periods, like California firestorms of 2017 and 2019. She found joy in what remained, like her mother-in-law’s still-standing house, fresh water and air returning, and signs filling her Sonoma County community that read, “The love in the air is thicker than the smoke.”

“Our large community had banded together in the most beautiful, compassionate ways,” says Dr. Manly. “The love in the air was surely much thicker and more palpable than the smoke. In fact, I felt as if I could not do enough to help others.” The motivation and inspiration she derived from the positively felt from others lifted her up and mobilized her spirit.

Meditation guide and spiritual teacher Biet Simkin has also known dark times: She signed a record deal with Sony but her music career never took off; she lost a daughter to SIDS; she fell into heroin addiction. It was only by shifting her perspective, by realizing she was in the driver’s seat, that she was able to course-correct her life. “The first joy I can remember [during this difficult period] was seeing myself truly for the first time. I finally got honest with myself and realized it was me—it wasn’t my poverty or my dead child or [anything else]. The problem was and is always me,” says Simkin. “If I am the problem, then I need, have, and am the solution…I was broken, I was broke, I was lonely, I was an addict—but I could see myself fully, and I knew there was hope. We have no hope if we can’t see ourselves truly.”

She then embraced prayer, meditation, regular exercise, and financial literacy, ultimately shifting her reality in every area of her life. Now, Simkin strives to achieve personal greatness, which is something we are all empowered to reach for, even amid pandemic times, and may even bring us joy.

“The first joy I can remember was seeing myself truly for the first time. I was broken, but I could see myself fully, and I knew there was hope. We have no hope if we can’t see ourselves.” —Biet Simkin, spiritual teacher

For others, finding joy during uncontrollable times may simply start with embracing a bliss-inducing practice. Clarissa Egana, founder of athleisure company Port de Bras, understands the frustrating reality of being at a work standstill all too well. Her company is based in Caracas, Venezuela, and was affected by a two-month power outage in 2019. Without electricity, she couldn’t receive or dispatch orders or email clients, but she needed to keep her business rolling. Luckily, she found a joy-sparking touchstone when her diagnosis with the autoimmune condition Hashimoto’s disease led her to search for a calming exercise.

“I began practicing yoga two months after my diagnosis,” Egana says. “I was looking for a Pilates instructor, but she intuitively shifted our time into teaching me the first Ashtanga series. I wasn’t amused in the beginning—it felt a little slow, boring, and uncomfortable. But after two weeks, I was suddenly hooked and found it to be the best tool to combat my anxiety and stress.”

The year of the blackout, she even spent her birthday practicing yoga with her husband and children. “I couldn’t think of any other activity I could enjoy in a very quiet, hopeless moment,” she says. “We couldn’t leave the house or have anyone in it, as we live in a very closed neighborhood and the doors are automatic and wouldn’t open [without electricity]. Yoga gave me the calm I needed to accept strange feelings about this, and be able to flow.”

Now, amid the pandemic, Egana is again leaning on yoga as part of her routine. “After my flow is complete, I turn off my phone and enjoy quality time with my family,” she says. “They believe in me so much, and that fuels my energy to the maximum.”

What does joy mean for you, right now?

Of course there are unique obstacles in our way of joy right now, but perhaps it can be found simply by knowing it can exist in all places—and actively seeking it out. When the length of the tunnel is unknown, it remains dark. Until, that is, we ignite our own small lights to lead us to the end.

Choosing joy doesn’t mean ignoring the rough realities of life right now or slapping on a smile to grin through misery for the benefit of others. Hoaglund, Dr. Manly, Simkin, and Egana show us that it’s about recognizing and fully relishing in all the ways joy can appear. We’re in isolation, but we have each other—whether in (very) close quarters or through screens and apps. Acknowledging that is choosing to see joy. Finding possibility in tomorrow, and realizing, as Hoaglund says, that things can always change, is choosing to see joy as well.

Because, spoiler: The war ended, as all wars eventually do. Hoaglund now revisits her “beautiful memories” of life every day to fill her joy meter: Bicycle-riding during war times gave way to roller-skating through New York City, and then meeting a love that lasted 50 years. Surrounding herself with memories of her late husband keeps the joy he brought her alive. “He’s gone 17 years,” she says of him. “And I sit up in his bedroom with all his photos, writing up my checks the way he showed me how to do it. You have to feel positive, because that’s what life is.”

Or that’s at least what life can be, and I’m choosing to believe that.

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