Monday 6 April 2020

Towards an ethics of joy

''She discovered with great delight that one does not love one's children just because they are one's children but because of the friendship formed while raising them.''

Love in the Time of Cholera, Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

I recently returned to this book, wanting to read something that resonated with the strange, other-worldliness of a time of pandemic. Marquez's writing is beautiful and evocative, but the story (as I remembered, coming back to it) is a little problematic. Nevertheless the quote above stood out for me as a kind of theme tune for my experiences so far during lockdown.  I am spending a huge amount of time with my two girls (10 and 12) and it is no understatement to say that just these past three weeks have radically changed my relationship with them. I'm lucky that they are of an age where friendship is possible; we can support each other, laugh together, be silly or just hang-out (when they want me to, that is). Whilst I know they are still very young, it is true to say that they are supporting me as much as I am supporting them.

So it's a strange time to be writing about joy, and also the perfect time. 

Joy is different from happiness; it speaks of moments rather than a state of being, and of the soul, rather than the mind. It requires noticing, and attention to be paid. If the current crisis is teaching me anything, it is that it is pointless striving for long periods of being 'happy' and that instead it is better to spend time spotting and savouring those often fleeting seconds when you suddenly feel joy bubble up, endorphins hitting the bloodstream like a hit of nicotine or alcohol (yes, I take joy from those things too :)

Me, attempting to dance with Oti Mabuse
The Dutch philosopher Spinoza wrote extensively on affirmative ethics as a practice of joy, whereby you firstly pay attention to the things that promote physical and mental well-being (of yourself and others - which may include non-humans).  As Rosi Braidotti states 'A joyful ethics rests on an enlarged sense of a vital inter-connection with a multitude of others by removing the obstacle of self-centred individualism and anthropocentricism on one hand, and the barriers of negativity on the other. ' (2018, p.221).

Affirmative ethics doesn't refuse to acknowledge pain, but suggests we use knowledge to transform it into something positive. In the context of coronavirus, this could mean allowing ourselves to feel pain and grieve, while also taking time to reflect and learn from what the pandemic is telling us. It requires a cognitive step which de-personalises the crisis in order to 'transform its negative charge' (difficult, of course), noticing negative emotions of pain, anger, greed and fear.' (ibid., p.222). To be affirmative is therefore about firstly noticing, and then taking action, riding on the back of a wave of 'potensia' energy; the kind of power that comes from natural and bodily forces rather than the static power of organisations and hierarchies. It asks - what can this joy teach me, and how can I generate more from this moment? How can we use this new knowledge to work together, and construct new horizons of hope and change?

I wrote this poem a while ago about counting my daughter's freckles. It speaks of numerous moments of noticing, allowing myself to be affected, and being mindful of the often surprising nature of 'joyful encounters'. There might not be so many during the weeks to come. But I'll keep trying to notice them.

Braidotti, R. 'Ethics of Joy'. in Braidotti, R. and Hlavajova, M. (2018). Posthuman Glossary. London: Bloomsbury.

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