Child of Life


When I first printed this image, I thought it was quite a nice expression of childhood exuberance. Now, because I see the figure representing humanity standing in relation to the vastness of earth and cosmos it evokes the spirit of joy. Given how we evolved from the earth, I like how the figure seems to rise from the ground and reach for the sky. The photograph speaks of our place in the universe—grounded and seeking.

I’m reminded of the Buddhist admonition of  “right perspective,” expressed in the Noble Eightfold Path. Images coming from the Hubble, radio and microwave telescopes are revealing the unfathomable scale, beauty and variety of cosmic manifestations. And that can be humbling. The human body is smaller than an atom in relation to the universal body, yet there is an immensity within us, hinted at by Ralph Waldo Emerson when he wrote “What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.” More specifically, in our inner circle and outer observations, if we look for them, we can find demonstrations of this inner immensity—our capacities for love, compassion, altruism, courage, humility, creativity, empathy, sharing, helping, growth and exploration to name a few. The evolution of matter has led to and resulted in, even accelerated, the evolution of reflexive consciousness. We know that we know. And as we catch glimpses of the universe story, we’re struggling to understand our place in it, to create, integrate and coordinate on the way toward a definition of humanity that is as much “we” as “I.”

Shakespeare’s despondent Prince Hamlet, contemplating suicide, wonders whether it is nobler “To be or not to be.” A variety of life experiences can raise this question in us, but only in circumstances where the joy has gone out, where we’ve lost the perspective of who we truly are, why we are here and what we have to contribute. Right perspective is knowing that, although minuscule and vulnerable in form, we are each a vital and functioning part of the Great Mystery. To be is to enjoy membership in It, to be one with It. And there is no greater privilege. The operative word here is “enjoy,” to be in the state of joy as a result of this perception.

Philosophers from Socrates on, regarding happiness as the ultimate good, debated its nature and how to achieve it. Today, formulas abound in books, on television and on speaking platforms to help us find or choose happiness. But joy is not the same as happiness. While joy can deliver happiness, it is more subtle. For me, it’s a felt quality of alignment with purpose and connection to the Great Mystery. It comes in moments of gratitude, appreciation, increased awareness or insight. It sparks a feeling of deep satisfaction and knowing that comes from focus and immersion, being in the right place at the right time and doing the right thing. When we’re aligned and in the flow like this, time stands still.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a leader in the field of positive psychology, defines “flow” as “a state of heightened focus and immersion in activities such as art, play and work.” In his talks he says flow is the secret to happiness. Indeed. But in my world-view happiness stands on the shoulders of joy. As I see it, happiness is a positive emotion that ripples like waves on the surface of the ocean. Joy is more fundamental, an emanation of soul, a subtle confirmation or message that bubbles up from the depths saying the current thinking or activity is both aligned with my purpose and in harmony with the advance of life.

To clarify with an example, it can be said of Adolf Hitler that he was in the flow, a visionary and a man of “integrity.” He was focused to the point of obsession. And he acted with integrity to his vision. But it matters what we have integrity to. And so we deplore his vision and the means of achieving it. We can imagine that he experienced feelings of happiness when things were going his way. But did he experience  joy? We cannot know, but his boisterous, strident and dictatorial manner and speech—as revealed in film footage—are characteristics that dampen rather than attune to the subtle qualities that affirm life and the expression of  higher human capacities (like those cited above). Soul emanations are subtle. They thrive in calm and tend to rise to the surface when the emotions are still.

I like to think the soul uses joy to keep us on the path to fulfillment. An airplane pilot approaching a landing strip flying blind in a snowstorm pays close attention to the instruments that tell her when she is on or veering off course. When she’s on course, the trajectory lights green and her confidence is maintained. If she can hold to it and correct for when the lights indicate that she’s off course, she will arrive safely at her destination. Likewise, subtle jolts of joy are an indication that I am aligned with my purpose and connected to the larger system that affirms and advances life and keeps me on course. Joy happens for good reason. May you have lots of it, and may it bring happiness along with it!

With an eye made quiet by the power of harmony, and the deep power of joy, we see into the life of things.

William Wordsworth

About This Image

Title: Child Of Light

Theme: Joy

File #: 554-A3

I was visiting a local park with my family. I wanted to photograph the clouds over the hill. I  needed a subject, so I asked Jennifer, who was about ten years-old at the time, to go up the hill. I had no preconceived notion of what I wanted her to do. I just directed her to stand in a certain place and then raise her arms. The exuberance with which she did it was perfect, and I took the shot. It’s a simple image but it speaks to me.

One thought on “Joy

  1. I have always loved this photograph! Longing for that feeling in the park with a hill of green grass. I can feel the warmth and energy from it as I look out at the snow coming outside my window. I have never thought about the ethical dimension of joy but you raise such an interesting point about the conditions for the experience of joy. Wonderful contemplation and I know I will continue to think about it.



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