My Gran and Granda grew up in a northern steel-making town at a time when going to the pub meant your family went hungry, so they found a different kind of joy. Instead, they spent their free time sat in a circle on uncomfortable chairs, demurely praising the Lord.
I was always baffled by my gran’s favourite hymn, “Joy to the World”. She would request it and her voice would trill like a songbird in an explosion of ecstasy that contrasted starkly with the dour routines of her life. My gran’s joy was a deep well in a wet country – constantly renewed by the hope of something better.
As a child, joy to me was lying for hours in the branches of the giant sycamore, watching life slowly unfold. It was exploring the abandoned World War Two hospital to find ancient machinery with giant valves intact. It was cycling to the red rocks and pressing fingers into cold copper engraving, surveying the whole world from Birkenhead to the glimmering isles to the Liverpool docks and across the silted estuary to North Wales.
As I matured, joy became something deeper – the certainty of being loved by God, having purpose, being constantly forgiven.
It came as a jolt when my joy suddenly disappeared, mid A-levels.
I was a loner so it took people a while to figure it out. A friend who asked why the school bus nearly ran me over; another who told me I had disappeared from my body. The excessive sleep. Dropping out – of everything.
If there was a cause, apart from genetics, it was probably the fact that I bore the responsibility for the souls of EVERY SINGLE ONE OF MY FRIENDS. I would pray for everyone I loved, several times a day, and shake physically with what I thought was divine power – it was probably nervous stress. I was so desperate for them to be saved and so convinced that if I didn’t save them, they were going to hell.
Five years after it started, I got a diagnosis. Depression. Seems obvious now. It wasn’t then. Nobody talked about the D word.
By the time we worked it out, I’d replaced church with clubs. Giving yourself permission to feel joy is tough when you’ve been taught to rejoice only in the Lord. We used to sing a chorus: “Since the Lord saved me / I am as happy as can be / My cup’s full and running over”. Without him, my joy cup was scrubbed clean and set out to bleach in the sun.
Dancing to big beat, garage and drum ’n’ bass was my therapy.
But if the only place you feel joy is on the dance floor, it’s hard to create it for others. Unless you take them dancing – which not everyone goes for. The void inside can turn to bitterness when you slam up against that expectation from the people you love, that you should in some way contribute to their happiness.
But you have to fight for joy. You have to be so determined to get your hands on some of that joy that you’ll do whatever it takes. And that’s the kind of joy that matters – it’s the kind that’s born from compassion – from a deep understanding that life is tough, and we’re all in it together, and we have to create as much joy as we can, because after all, honestly, what else can we be certain of?
This blog is part of the #DailyWritingChallenge set by Hannah Wilson to keep us connected during the Covid-19 lockdown.