Joy Trumps Fear

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Joy Trumps Fear

Post-its reacting to Trump's election line the walls of the New York subway. (Photo: Barney Bishop/flickr/cc)

Sometimes I force myself to look at photos of Donald Trump, to confront the harsh reality that he will indeed, in all likelihood, soon be the president of the United States. What strikes me most forcefully in that face is the total lack of joy.

Oh, I imagine he can feel plenty of pleasure. he seems to be what the Greeks called a sybarite—a devotee of all the sensual pleasures that his dubiously-earned money can buy. He’s the guy you imagine feels at home only in a hot tub full of beautiful women, with a bottle of high-priced wine in his hand. He even seemed to relish the sensual attraction of his own daughter.

When you look at Trump’s face, though, what jumps out most clearly is the incapacity for joy. Not only does he seem to feel no real joy. He does not even seem to have a clue what genuine joy would feel like.

A psychologist might say that when he grabs at a woman’s pussy (and why should we think he will stop doing that just because he’s in the White House; didn’t Henry Kissinger say that power is the greatest aphrodisiac?) he’s not really grasping for sexual pleasure. He is grasping vainly for some kind of real joy. I don’t know. I’m not a psychologist.

But I do know that Trump’s excruciatingly slim victory was also a victory for joylessness. The next four years threaten to be a much more resounding victory for joylessness.

I’ve seen that joylessness not only on Trump’s face, but on the faces of Trump voters. I’ve been seeing it for many years, going back to the time they were Reagan voters, as I’ve traveled across the American West and stopped off to eat in roadside restaurants in the small towns and exurbs that gave Trump his win.

I know this is the kind of elitist talk that drives many of those folks to double down on Republicans, even though GOP policies do them the greatest harm. I know I’m making a facile subjective judgment about people whom (I admit with shame) I never took the time to talk to. I know that a few of them may even be liberals.

But I also know the evidence of my eyes. An absence of joy, and a frustrated desire for a joy they rarely feel, so often stares out of their own blank eyes and their hardened faces and tightened mouths. It’s just too harsh to deny.

They rarely look like mean or cruel people. They often look like people who can feel some happiness as long as they are in the safe confines of their small, familiar world, in places they know among people they know. What robs them of joy is that the wider world is constantly impinging on them, bringing all its blooming, buzzing confusion, all the rapid changes that they just can’t make sense of.

How often we’ve read that Trump voters feel like their America has been taken away from them and they want it back. When Trump promises to “make America great again” they hear a promise that they will indeed get their America back. Their America was a place where supposedly firm boundary lines—boundaries of race and gender and sexual preference and religion—kept them feeling protected.

Now they feel, with some good reason, that the boundary lines are rapidly dissolving. Living in such an overwhelming world, with its overwhelming tension, is frightening. Fear of the world, in all its incomprehensible complexity, has robbed them of their capacity for real joy. Now fear haunts even places that once seemed safe, like the local restaurant. Having no place to escape, no private shelter, makes life seem all the more frightening, all the more devoid of even the possibility of joy.

Which tells us something about the difference between pleasure, or even momentary happiness, and genuine joy. Joy is the special kind of happiness that comes from feeling pleased, gratified, maybe even elated, just by being alive—not by living in any special corner of the world, among any particular group of people, but by living in the whole big, wide world, among all its marvelous diversity of people.

Joy needs no private place of shelter. It can find happiness anywhere, with anyone. Joy expects happiness to come from everywhere and everyone.

That’s the kind of experience I see totally missing in Donald Trump’s face, and in the faces of these decent folks who live in the exurbs or small towns where political conservatism is the norm.

The last time we had a revolutionary movement in this country, back in the era we remembers as “the sixties,” the revolution was not just about bringing economic or racial or gender justice to America. That was surely part of it. But the larger goal was to bring joy to America. People who are truly capable of joy, and feel joy as part of their daily lives, don’t grasp for wealth. They don’t discriminate against people because of how or where they were born. And they don’t tolerate discrimination or inequality. The mere sight of it dampens their joy and calls them to resist.

Feeling joy means being sensitive to the entire world. People who want true joy will naturally want to see and hear joy everywhere and in everyone. They can’t retreat into some private sphere and pretend they can be happy shut off from the rest of the world. They know that, in fact, no one is every really shut off. The supposed safety of that little private sphere is always an illusion.

Nor do joyous people feel any need to retreat. Since joy means opening up to all of the wider world, it  comes only when we feel no fear from the world. Joy trumps fear.

If the presidency of Donald Trump is, for the moment, a triumph of fear over joy, then our resistance and our revolution must go beyond demands for economic, racial, and gender justice. Our revolution must be a conscious rejection of fear and cultivation of joy—watching our joy, moment by moment, triumphing over our fear.

Each of us has our own way of cultivating joy: through circles of friendship, through communing with nature, through music and dance and all the other arts, and in a thousand different ways. What makes them all bringers of joy is that they open us up to the whole world and all its people, in all its amazing diversity. They help us feel gratified merely to be living another day, wherever we happen to be and whomever we happen to meet.

All of our ways of cultivating joy are now paths of political resistance. Resistance and revolution must take more overtly political forms too, of course. Within it all, though, if we ever give in to our fear and stop cultivating our joy, then Trump and all that he represents will truly have defeated us. The victory of fear is what we must resist at all costs. A real revolution is a joyous revolution.

Ira Chernus

Ira Chernus

Ira Chernus is Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of"American Nonviolence: The History of an Idea."

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