Joy in Life, Nature, Art, and Culture
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Human direction in life was discussed in Chapter 3 of this essay as dominated by not one but three different motivations; first, by “self-related” motivations, such as satisfaction of basic needs (then also, search for wealth), and natural self-fulfillment in personal growth of mind, personality, and skills; – second, by “altruistic” dedication to family, also by pursuit of personal rank in society (power), by ethical-idealistic dedication to helping others, or by community service; – third, by search for “Joy” in life, as in personal contacts or perceptions of nature, art, or culture:
Caring Service & Charity
Building a Better Society
Security and Dignity
Positive Significance in Society, Action Potential
Family and Clan
Chapter 4 of this essay presented direction in life in moral and Christian-religious terms.
Chapter 5 presented philosophical guidance for nonbelievers.
Chapter 6 offered practical advice for the conduct of life, as one could present to one’s own children or grandchildren as they grow up.
Now, in this Chapter 7, the attempt is made to clarify what is meant by the general human goal to reach or to sense joy. Joy is not an intellectual phenomenon but rather an emotional one – of emotionally valuing situations rather than finding truth.
Literature indicates that subjects of emotional valuation can be expressed most effectively by telling stories, by speaking in parables (or analogies).
The Greek philosopher Theophrastos (371 to 287 BC, successor of Aristoteles in Athens), used this style of writing to effectively describe the 30 different “characters” which he distinguished among the people of Athens in his time.
Jesus, who always emphasized the “spirit” of the law over the “letter” of the law, spoke often in parables to express more clearly what he wanted to communicate.
This chapter about “Joy” does not lend itself to philosophical, logical analysis either. A number of friends of the author were consulted about their experience with moments of joy in life, in special human encounters, or when enjoying nature, the arts, and culture. Invariably, the discussion reverted to their telling of short stories – parables or analogies. This was even more necessary when talking about humor, which can be a special experience of joy.
The following text merely presents a selection of such short stories, sorted in a certain order – from the most childish to the most profoundly felt ones.
“From my childhood, I specifically remember playing happily in a sandbox, with a very small shovel and an equally small bucket, together with other very young children. When we had filled a bucket with wet sand and turned it over, we had built a beautiful small tower.”
“I remember Sunday lunches of fried chicken, when the whole family was sitting around the table, all talking happily to each other, and I sitting there gnawing on the tasty bone of a chicken leg.”
“I remember the visit to a farm when I was only four years old. The farmer allowed me to sit on his old tractor and, as this big machine was very slowly rolling along on an open field, I could steer and control it myself. It was a joy to sit up there.”
“When I was seven years old, we lived on a large property of gently sloping grassland with many very old trees along its sides. Every year in fall, a farmer came to cut the grass. Then we could see many small earth mounds from moles living under the grass. The farmer wanted those mounds leveled. Since we had an old VW-Beetle car, my father allowed me and my brothers to drive around in order to flatten those mounds – around and around on that large meadow – as the brothers were cheering! That was great fun!
Since I was still so small, I had to slide way down the seat to reach the pedals. But then, I had to look forward from under the rim of the steering wheel to see where I was going.
That freely driving around on the large property was the first great joy I remember!”
“The teacher I had in grade school, Mr. Behr, brought true happiness to his students. As we arrived in the morning, he took a violin out of an old case that was lined with blue velvet and played some wonderful music. Then, he had several of us tell him what we had done the day before and what we wanted to learn, while he listened attentively.
Later during the school year, whenever one of us had a birthday, Mr. Behr would bring a small cake and candle and would play a special tune just for that happy child. No question: we all adored Mr. Behr and did everything we could to please him. The strange world away from home became beautiful. Learning became a delight. We began to move out into our own lives.
Thank you, Mr. Behr, for opening a joyful path to our lives!”
“At the end of World War II, I found myself as an abandoned adolescent refugee in a Swiss internment camp, high up in the wintry Alps, though protected and cared for. Thank you, Switzerland! One day, a letter came from the Jewish friend of my father in Ascona, Ticino, to present myself for an interview, which could possibly lead to school attendance there. My only mode of transportation, since being without funds, was an old bicycle.
The passes across the Alps were still under gray clouds and covered by snow. But, as I reached the valley of the Ticino River, with the road leading down to the lakes, I came for the first time to Italian climate and culture. All of nature was beautifully verdant. Many houses were not gray, but painted in many joyful colors. The church steeples looked different and the bells sounded different.
A great feeling of joy overcame me!
(The interview went well. Shortly thereafter I was admitted to school again – and could live for a while in Ascona. I still feel deep gratitude to several good people who had helped me!)”
“As a student in college, a young man still visited with his parents at his home town from time to time. It became a habit, that on one day he would go out only with his mother – for lunch, a walk through a park, or a little excursion to a nearby historic place. They shared their thoughts, but then also their observations as they walked along, even gave each other small gifts for memory. This reconnected them as in early childhood.
On other days, he would go out only with his father. They would rent horses at a nearby stable and ride over the fields and through the woods, with wonderful views to the distant mountains. Then, they would go to a historic bar for some typical drinks and gastronomic delicacies. The father had a time of great joy with those outings. But that young man learned to enjoy the relaxed conversation which allowed him to share the so much greater “wisdom” of his father whom he had never experienced that way when he was younger.
What better could remain of family joy, by now in memory, after all those years?”
Later in Life
A story from an older lady: “Many years ago, in our young marriage, already blessed with several small children, we decided to travel from time to time. When we were far from home, in a different climate and a different culture, free of all daily duties, as on a Pacific beach on a sunny day – then I experienced great joy!”
From another lady: “After difficult years in a small home in Northern Europe – with my macular degeneration slowly taking away my eyesight – the opportunity appeared to spend six months with our son in Vancouver, Canada. My husband and I were afraid to have to crowd into our host family’s setting. But our son was able to rent an apartment for us nearby in a modern high-rise building – on the 12th floor, with a balcony and a view reaching all the way to the Pacific Ocean!
I remember the moment of our arrival – and all the time thereafter – as having been of the greatest joy to us!”
“As I successfully attended college, my older brother returned from extended military service. I really had not known him very well before he departed. Now he returned – but, quite noticeably, suffered from post-traumatic-stress-disorder. He could not concentrate on any academic studies or other occupation, which he was supposed to undertake for any length of time. Therefore, I decided to invite him to live with me for a while.
When he arrived, I picked him up at the railroad station. Since we both did not have money for a big dinner, we bought some bread, ham and cheese and sat down on a park bench as the evening approached.
To the surprise of both of us, we began a good conversation, as we never had before. To our even greater surprise, the conversation carried us on to our lives’ concerns, goals in life, and our world-view – in great harmony, as we found. It was as if we were allowed to once look over the fence that normally enclosed our mental lives and to perceive the width of our human existence.
This was a moment of great joy to both of us!
(It took my brother about three years to fully recover. But then, he was able to live a very successful and happy life – later on with his wonderful family).
“Shortly after I had met the young girl who later became my wife, we once went to the movies. I forgot what film we saw. But I remember distinctly how I suddenly had a vision of seeing her as being a few years older, more mature, with a small child at her side, both looking joyfully at me! In that moment I knew she would be a wonderful companion in life – which she actually became! The moments of joy came back many more times – by now through 50 years!”
“You ask for the story of a joyful moment from my daily life? As we traveled, I once went shopping in a European town. At the entrance of a large store, an elderly man played a concertina. Wanting to share my own good fortune and mood with him, I placed a nice Euro coin in the cup in front of him. Noticing the amount of the donation, the musician’s face became so humanly joyful that I had to put another coin in that cup. The musician had come from difficult circumstance in distant Romania.
At the end, all my money was gone – but I still remember that human being full of joy – including myself!”
“I can tell a similar story from San Francisco, where I encountered an elderly saxophone player at a street corner playing classical music. He played so wonderfully, with so much human sentiment, that I was deeply touched and filled with joy – he could go home having had a successful day after my donation – and I having had a joyful day!”
“Happiness is not only a matter of big earnings – it is also a matter of your attitude.
I encountered the owner of a small cleaning business where I seldom saw any customers. One day I asked him how he was doing. “I am content” was the answer, as he smiled at me.
That was the lesson for me!
How many times did I remember that man and joyfully thought “I am content”!”
Family and Friends:
“I had to work hard during my years in business – for many, many stressful hours every day! Additionally, there were even more stressful business trips. I missed out on being with our still small children, boisterously playing at home in the evenings after all their homework for school was done.
When I was able to return home early from a business trip, when they were still up and running around or loudly playing their different musical instruments, I went directly to their play area – sat down on a low cushion – and sometimes fell joyfully asleep in all the noise right there!”
“About a hundred years ago, a young woman, daughter of a wealthy family in Switzerland, had been cheated out of her inheritance by her brothers. She left town and became the nanny of the children of another family far away. As those children had grown up, her generous employers fulfilled her dream and bought her a house to start a home to care for children who had been in trouble. Soon she was famous for the very sensitive way she found to successfully help each one of those who were sent to her. During World War II she was asked to greatly expand her operation to care for about a hundred Jewish refugee children sent to Switzerland by their parents who were threatened by annihilation. Unbelievable as it may sound, she created an environment of learning and joy for those children!
May the joy she gave have reflected back into her own heart!”
“Not all women can readily have children as they wish. A young woman had lost several during pregnancy. When a daughter was finally born, however, she felt the greatest of joy!”
“Another young couple, after many years of disappointment, finally decided to adopt a baby from a distant country. Since they were already somewhat progressed in age, the adoption agencies hesitated. At the last moment, the baby they thought they could receive was given to a younger couple.
Then came another call from that distant country, that a baby would be available. They did not hesitate a day to go there and try their luck. The baby was actually given to them! They actually received airplane seats for the return flight that same day!
Only as they returned to their home the next morning did they believe their luck. All their worries fell away and they embraced in greatest joy with the baby in their arms.”
“Another moment of great relief and joy in a human encounter?
A woman had lost her husband many years ago. Then she met a ‘gentleman friend’. They had a number of dates, but, finally, both came to the conclusion that their friendship should end.
They met for one last time and had a wonderful dinner with good conversation.
As they left the restaurant, each to walk their own way home, he suddenly took her in his arms – and held her for a while, warm and close, even giving her a tender kiss.
Overcome by sudden emotion, she also gave him a very tender kiss.
Suddenly, she felt as if all the burden of the recent years had fallen from her shoulders.
She cried – and he began to cry, too.
She still remembers this moment as one of greatest joy in her life.”
“Can separation be joyful? For a manager in a large organization, the time for retirement had arrived after many years of dedicated work. That dedication had been necessarily first for the success of the company, but very much also for the success in life of his subordinates. He was always there to give each one good advice and try to open suitable new opportunities for them.
He did not think that his personal effort had been noticed very much in that business environment; thus he just wanted to depart quietly when the time came.
Much to his surprise, a great celebration took place with a series of speeches by former employees thanking him for all he had personally done for them, for having been such a human being in the midst of the business world – and there were gifts with everyone’s signature.
(The company, in recognition of his accomplishments, improved the terms of retirement.)
Thus, that departing still resonates with joy for him (mixed with sadness)!”
“As we turned older, in retirement, we had a beautiful summer home out in the countryside – complete with a small garden in which to enjoy our meals.
During vacation time, the children sometimes all came to visit with us, bringing along some friends. When including some of our own friends, we occasionally had quite a large and happy group there.
We purchased ample quantities of delicious local food, some local wine, but mainly tried to relax – to fully appreciate the joy of those common evenings in our garden!”
“When I was only 12 years old, I began to enjoy being on a boat on the nearby lake and had actually learned to sail. That fall, my father offered me a small, old “dinghy” sailboat, which was in a state of disrepair and was sitting abandoned in the yard of a boat repair shop at the lake. If I would repair it through the winter, I would have my own sailboat in the spring!
What a challenge for a twelve-year-old boy!
The boat was promptly repaired on time (with the help of some yard workers)!
How can one express the joy of being out on the lake on a quiet evening after school (or during the day, instead of going to school)! What an awakening experience to sense the joy of nature – the ripples of a light wind on the water, the reflections of trees along the shore or of steadily migrating clouds on the clear water’s surface, the arrival of waterfowl, sailing at first, then gliding into the water – finally the discovery of the night sky with its myriad stars!
Nature can be such a deep source of harmonious joy for us!”
“Skiing in winter? Do you know the joy of the first full snow arriving in winter? You cannot wait to get up the slopes. Now starts the swinging down in wide curves through the blowing powder!
Too soon you arrive breathlessly at the bottom – hurry back to the ski lift with its typical clanking noise – and be gently lifted up and up again! You briefly perceive the wide scenic view up and down the mountain range!
Another brief minute of joy follows in almost musically swinging down!”
“We spent summers on the Mediterranean coast. In the morning, when the family still slept, I enjoyed getting up before sunrise to sit on a rock at the water’s edge.
The water is always totally calm, with a perfectly reflecting surface, at that time of the day.
Slowly the dark sky in the east turns gray, then dark orange, then lighter orange.
On some days, my wife follows me and sits silently on the rock next to me. Doesn’t the sky turn more beautiful at that moment?
A small fishing boat with two dark figures in it leaves the port somewhere in the distance to my left and takes a straight course toward the islands to my right, leaving at first a sharp cone of spreading then fading waves, along with the typical tuck-tuck noise of its motor – then the sound fades.
The sky turns to a more intensely bright color.
Then, like a dagger of light, the fringe of the sun comes over the horizon. You quickly have to avert your eyes from such brightness. The day has begun!
Joy has filled our hearts!”
“Friends of ours had traveled to Peru, to hike in the Andes. They reported how they returned one evening from the mountains to the vast highlands, the Altopiano.
As the sun set, the sky turned deep red.
The sky appeared immensely wide over those highland planes!
Could the sky have any deeper color?
Unbelievable how at this altitude the sky kept glowing – on and on – in an ever deeper and ever more intensely fiery red!
As it faded into the dark, they still stood there for a long time – filled with joy!”
“Ask me about a perfectly beautiful scenery! The answer may be different for each one of us. Having been confined for so many years of business life to work in an office, I always think of the immense width of scenery in northern Alaska – endless mountain ranges sloping away from your sight toward the horizon, a broad river leisurely meandering in the valley between them – possibly some wide ocean water in the distance.
But with your question also comes the memory of my youth – of walking through sunlit forests – with clear gray tree trunks majestically rising to the wide green crowns of the trees – walking toward an overlook – looking over gently rolling hills – occasionally seeing the church steeple of a small historic village in the distance – swallows circling swiftly through the air!”
“The beauty of nature can appear in minute detail. The famous Renaissance artist Albrecht Dürer (1471 to 1528) once produced a painting of merely a little patch of grass – with its elegantly curving leaves in different shades of green. That painting still hangs in a museum and delights people – who otherwise carelessly walk by lots of grass along the road.
On most bushes in your garden, or in a park, the tips of the branches end with a very small cluster of two or three newly formed leaves. Look at their aesthetically elegant shape. Enlarge them in your mind to twenty times their size. Put them on a pedestal. They will appear as wonderful works of art. Present them to an art gallery or museum. They will give joy to all the visitors!”
“An old lady, once an artist, living alone and suffering from the beginning of dementia, only wanted to enjoy undisturbed rest.
Then she had an idea!
She had her bed moved close to the window where, from such a position, she could look up to the sky as she rested on her pillow.
She told us that her life became wonderful for her again. She could see the clouds sail by.
As she said, from morning to evening, ever new clouds, in ever new forms and in different lighting, came by, sometimes changing shape during the short time they were visible from her window. Then they sailed on.
Where would they go? She remembered journeys she had undertaken in her younger years.
Joy remained in her heart!”
“Of course we also had art classes in high school – very boring for us youngsters.
What happened one day, though? I was about 15 years old, just “confirmed” in the historic church of a small village. I had gone for a walk and was sitting on a small hill less than a mile from the village, with a perfect view over the fields toward that church. I wished I could hold onto this picture forever.
What a coincidence: I had a pen and some paper in my pocket!
Unbelievable! The sketch succeeded! The view could be nicely recognized – and I had a wonderful souvenir! That was joy!
This first chance success encouraged me to sketch more and more as I traveled. I must have close to a hundred sketches in my desk drawers by now.
More importantly, I suddenly had an eye for graphic art – first for drawings and engravings.
Then followed an experiment with coloring those drawings – and that opened my eyes to the art of painting! What a joy to stand in front of an outstanding painting – in a museum or in a private home! Good art may be primarily an aesthetic joy, but outstanding art also has content – and communicates emotions – as music can do so deeply!
I once discovered a very small piece of painted wall decoration from Pompeii – showing some columns of an old temple, a gentle tree growing out of those ruins, a toga-clad person looking out from there. Who was that artist 2,000 years ago sensing this beauty and communicating with me now?
Later, experiments with sculpturing followed – well guided by an experienced teacher who started me with doing clay figures.
Finally, we had to expand an old house we lived in – and I dared to do some of the architectural design myself. A well-meaning professional architect directed me toward the “American Vignola”, a modern reprint of that Renaissance architect’s teaching of perfect design. (After all, Thomas Jefferson was an amateur architect, too). The result was an enjoyable addition to our house – some people actually like to look at it.
I find joy in remembering the time of artistic expression I was allowed to experience.
Having learned that courage to experiment with different forms of art can result in great joy. I tried some poetry (my sister was much better at it, and we stimulated each other in friendly competition), then composing simple tunes of music … I even tried gourmet cooking!
“Dare to be great”, as I saw written somewhere as a graffiti!”
“Several times, when going to museums, I was moved to joy by outstanding art.
In my younger years, I was impressed mainly by some Renaissance artists with almost Romantic sensitivity, by the engraver Albrecht Dürer and the sculptor Tilman Riemenschneider. Later, I was deeply touched by Romantic art, for instance, the German painter Caspar David Friedrich. Still later, I discovered the Hudson River School of landscape paintings and still consider them the most sensitive period of American art – giving me great joy!
Finally, as I was able to travel more extensively, I discovered Greek temples – the Parthenon in Athens, the temples at Paestum in Italy and at Agrigento on Sicily – so perfectly harmonious.
Then, I discovered modern architecture – not only of great buildings, but also of fantastic bridges – thank you, Prof. Billington of Princeton! Here, art approaches the beauty of perfectly designed technical objects – as modern airplanes, or even some cars!
Our home became more and more a collection of beautiful objects that we found by chance – some very simple, such as a drinking glass I use only occasionally for red wine – some antique and some very modern furniture, such as a wooden table designed by Nakashima of New Hope, Pennsylvania, consisting of a single slab of black walnut with a natural, ‘live’ edge.
What a joy to be touched by outstanding art!
Sometimes I find myself as having lived another week or month at our home without noticing the beauty of some of the objects! I admonish myself to keep my eyes open, my mind prepared for what is offered to us – at home and outside.”
No form of art can touch the heart as music does!
Was music invented by mankind – in all of its cultures on Earth at all times – as an expression of emotions, as stimulant for emotions – in relaxation, warfare, rituals, as well as courtship? May it not be overly abused in business for marketing or to agitate in propaganda!
“In my early teens, I found myself in a boarding school high in the Alps of Switzerland. For the first time, I was separated from my family and all my former friends. It was at that age that I began to experience desolate loneliness, which later became a theme of my life.
There were all kinds of youngsters in our school, also some bullies and some wild ones. Only one in our class, named Zastrow, appeared to be a wimp. He was always friendly, but he did not participate in any group activities. His only interest was in playing the piano.
In the evening, after finishing my homework, I would go to bed early, so as to be in the dark by myself, in loneliness and sadness. The window of my room opened onto the schoolyard. On the other side of the yard was a classroom building that contained a music room. That was where Zastrow went quite often to practice the piano in the evening. I must confess that I had refused to learn the piano while still at home and had rather cut classes at that time so that I could go sailing on a small boat on the lake. Now at boarding school, Zastrow’s music—the endless finger exercises, études, or the wild music of a strange composer—disturbed me.
The deep darkness and loneliness of a particular night in winter was especially hard on me. My thoughts were interrupted by the beginning of Zastrow’s music. As alwayds, it started wild. But this time, in the second movement of the piece, the adagio harmonies felt somewhat warmer to me, though still quite dark. Then, all of a sudden, a wonderful melody with tender and joyfully clear sounds wove into the course of the sonata –as if talking to me.
Immediately I felt wide-awake. Moments later, the melody returned—a bit clearer, lighter, more forthright than before. My heart began to feel joy. As that melody returned again and again, I had found a new light in life. Life could be beautiful, and worth living.
After the music ended, I fell asleep and enjoyed a wonderful night of internal harmony. The next day I talked to Zastrow. He told me that he had played Beethoven’s “Waldstein Sonata,” the piece he liked most. We talked for a while, and I found that he was just a youngster like me, but with greater sensitivity. Music was his way of coping with life—and now it had become a source of joy in life for me.
Thank you, Zastrow, for showing me a path to joy, out of the darkness within me.”
“Many messages and some videos are being sent around on the internet, from friend to friend. Some are stupid, some are supposed to be funny – but one touched me:
In that video, showing a market square somewhere in northern Spain, in front of the historic city hall, an elderly musician in a dark coat, with a large stringed instrument (a contrabass) and a paper cup on the floor in front of him, sits on a simple chair and plays an insignificant tune. Children toss coins into the cup and a circle of observers forms.
Next, another musician exits city hall and joins the already seated musician – then more and more musicians and, finally, a small choir of singers. A large crowd gathers around.
At that moment, the tune of the music changes into Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”!
The crowd joins the song and the children dance – happiness and momentary great joy fill that little plaza!”
“Another presentation of the “Ode to Joy” is annually performed in Osaka, Japan, in a large arena – where everybody participates, either as musician or as part of the choir!
The conductor had to wipe a tear from his eyes as the soaring music filled all their hearts!”
At the End?
“Must the end of our lives be filled with sadness?
How about the “near-death experience”?
There are numerous reports by people who were close to death and then recovered – about the greatness of their last vision – the great light, the great peace, even joy.
My great-grandmother had been very close to her two sisters. They preceded her and she only hoped to see them again in heaven. Upon her moment of dying, she suddenly opened her eyes once more and joyfully exclaimed the names of her two sisters! Then she was gone.
The famous inventor and designer of the iPhone and iPad at Apple, Steve Jobs, upon dying exclaimed “Oh, Wow!” – three times – then he had died.”
I myself had the near-death experience – the great light in endless space – and being part of a multitude! Then, upon recovering, I was deeply sad not to be in that peace and harmony any longer – there having felt so fully at home!
One can only wish everybody a completion of life in a homecoming of the greatest peace and joy!”
Now, please start recording what you remember as the most joyful moments of your own life – and also collect some short stories of “joy” from your friends. Reading those stories from time to time can return great joy to your own heart – which you can share with others.
More importantly, you may want to give your life a direction toward joy!
And don’t forget those who live in sadness, suffering, or loneliness around you!
Please bring them a little bit of light, a little bit of warmth – like the hope and joy from the rising sun!