Protect Your Joy

Tom Morris

Last night, in a discussion group I attended, there was a moment when we were talking about gladness, joy, and other deeply positive emotions. A lady spoke up with a wistful touch of frustration, saying that every time she ever felt anything like joy, someone or something would snatch it away from her - maybe a person, maybe a situation. An experience of joy had been only very fleeting in her life. She could never manage to hold on to it.

I was reminded of my time at Notre Dame, back when we were preparing for a national championship in football. I vividly remembered what the coaches used to tell the receivers and running backs.

It's not enough to get the ball. You have to hold on to the ball. And this means that, when you have it, you have to protect it well.

When you're a receiver or running back and come into possession of the ball, half the people on the field would love to snatch it away from you - whether by clawing at it, hitting it, punching it, pushing it, or kicking it. And a significant number of people in the stadium would truly enjoy seeing that happen.

One of the most common mistakes made by receivers and running backs is that, when they get the ball, their minds go directly toward either the goal line or the first down marker, whatever their immediate target at the time might be. But of course it will do them no good whatsoever to enter the end zone, or make it to the first down marker, if they?re not still in possession of the ball. That can be the difference between a first down or a touchdown, and a mere wind sprint down the field that ends with great disappointment.

The players had to be taught to protect the ball. And that process always begins in their minds. If their focus is too far ahead too quickly, the result is often a loose ball on the field, a turnover, and even additionally unfortunate consequences.

The same thing is true of joy. When joy comes into your life, do you know how to hold on to it? Do you know how to protect the ball? Or are you vulnerable to anyone who tries to snatch it away?

I don't mean to imply for a second that your life can be all 'happy-time' filled with glib gladness and exuberant, effervescent fun each moment of the day. Life brings us challenges. Not every experience will carry a positive tonality. In this world, we struggle. We suffer difficulty. We confront tragedy. But the joy spoken of by mystics and philosophers, the deep state of positive gratitude, gladness, and power that can color and strengthen your heart far beneath the surface play of everyday emotions and the constant vicissitudes of experience need not be a fleeting possession, vulnerable every second to loss. It can be something you take with you as you move forward, something that will give you the ability to reach your aims and attain your goals, whatever life might bring.

The challenge of joy is of course two-fold: Are we living in such a way that we can experience it at all? Can we get possession of the ball? And then, are we protecting the ball well enough that it can't easily be taken away? Or are we holding on to it so lightly, nervously, or distractedly that nearly anything ? a small bump, a tiny trip, or even a stray word, can separate it from us?

In my time at Notre Dame, I had the chance to teach philosophy to many exceptional football players like Jerome Bettis, Ricky Waters, and Rocket Ismael. I was, in a sense, their wisdom coach. I saw it as my job to get deep insights into their hands, practical knowledge about the big questions in life, a form of existential understanding that they could carry downfield as they moved toward any goals they might have.

For a long time, I thought it was all about the wisdom. But now I realize it was really about something else. It's often been said that knowledge is simply, always and everywhere, an intrinsic good - good in and of itself, without regard to any greater good it might serve. I've come to think this is false. There is a purpose for knowledge, and for the wisdom that is its most valuable province.

The purpose of wisdom is human flourishing ? individual flourishing and a broader wellbeing in the larger community of individuals, at every level, which helps make individual flourishing possible. And an important part of human flourishing is a durable and resilient experience of joy. The point of wisdom, then, and its true good, is to position you for joy, and then to help you protect it, when you have it, throughout the course of your life.

Let's consider this challenge today, and in days to come. What wisdom will it take for you to get beneath the surface stuff of life and come into possession of a deep personal experience of joy? And then, what will it take for you to protect your joy?

Just like on the football field, we can do things to position ourselves both to get the ball and to hold on to it. And these are some of the most important issues that we can ever - how else can I say it? - tackle.

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