What is it about joy? We cannot force it, but we all hope for it. We cannot wish it into existence; sometimes we don’t know what exactly brings it to us. It seems to me, though, that joy is often quietly abiding in community.
Having spent the last few days in a fairly rural part of southern France, I was struck by what I perceived to be simple manifestations of joy. I don’t mean my joy, although I was certainly happy to be there. What I mean is the contented aura of the many people milling about in a small town square who appeared to have something to do. The square had a small fountain in it. Despite what financial austerity the community, the region, or the country might be facing, water was running in the fountain. It was sunny and warm. People greeted each other and even me, obviously a stranger. It was a Saturday. Children were going by with parents, teenagers wandered around in small groups or in pairs. Some appeared to be coming from or going to school. The fountain water glittered in the sunlight. Smallish cars and the occasional motorcycle zoomed past on the nearby main street. The streets were clean. Men and women of all ages were sitting at cafes, together or by themselves. Everyone – save a very few – was dressed well. By that I mean they appeared to be clean and neatly dressed. There didn’t seem to be any strain to achieve the latest fashion; rather, just an inclination to look as well as one might without too much effort.
All around me people chatted with intention and animation. Some were laughing. Some appeared to be discussing something serious. Others seemed to be enjoying delicious gossip. At each café (they are closely situated, one after the other) clients chatted with the waiters and waitresses as well as each other. If I were to search for a way to describe the quality that I felt pervaded among the people, I would say that there was an absence of effort. There seemed an absence of effort to be observed, to be admired, to be heard or to be included.
I think there is something about community that allows joy to manifest. It is tied to security but it isn’t just security … security might be one of the most boring things about such a place. Maybe it’s reliability. By that I mean the reliability of the social contract, of knowing folks in one’s community, of sharing routines and practices. I believe these conditions allow for the multiplication of opportunities for small joys.
This is not an essay that addresses the social ills of France, of which there are many, especially in the big cities. What I want to bring up here is the sense that people – in this small town – seemed to feel the right to be joyful. Also the right to the pleasure of being old, or young, or short, or tall, the pleasure of being alive. I tried to imagine this sort of abandon in a small American town but it was difficult.
What have we done? Somehow we have capitulated to despair and unease, dissatisfaction and wariness of each other. We are not sure we deserve beauty in our surroundings, or what beauty might signify for us. We seem more secure in measuring our differences, our displays of wealth, or not; or our indifference to aesthetic pleasures. Underneath, there is a steaming anxiety that everything we have is not enough. We are more preoccupied with the material belongings we can count (or think we should have). Objects, more reliable, ease our active judgement of one another. With such a measured life, maybe there is less likelihood of the accidental and the coincidental. We leave insufficient space for joy in the social fabric we have so tightly woven.