I’ve been sick for about a week now. Nothing serious, just a cold that graciously waited for me to finish a rough draft of my final seminar paper. The morning after the mad rush of typing, when the paper was still in its terrible toddler stage, I felt the rawness in the back of my throat. I’ve had some fantastic sneezes and occasional coughing fits, and at times I’ve woken up to find my already low voice hitting baritone/bass level.
That, plus end-of-the-semester exhaustion, Christmas shopping, saying farewell to close friends, and Christmas parties have made me shut down a little bit. Just at the time when I was supposed to be opening myself up for the Christ child, I spent some time imploding, boarding up the windows and hunkering down.
How have I done that? HGTV and YouTube videos. I’ve gotten the process down to a science; I can mute Property Brothers’ commercials, watch a two-minute YouTube video, then unmute just in time to hear how construction is running behind because the floor joists are rotted. The ideal sick day.
So this past week while I consumed copious amounts of tea and media, this video came along.
If you hate fun and refuse to watch YouTube videos, I’ll summarize it. A little girl is moved by the music on a subway platform, and her exuberant dance moves inspire others to join in. There are plenty of people who pass by, and that’s their business. They’re probably on their way to something, already late.
They’re not who I noticed in this video. My attention was caught by the guy in the middle, the one in black with blonde hair. At the beginning I see him moving in, and I think, how great. That cute guy is going to dance with that little girl.
Nope. He’s filming her with his iPhone.
The guy is smiling. He’s obviously having a good time watching her—through the little screen in front of him. But he’s not really there. He’s not dancing. He’s not even really watching her, looking into her eyes with his own. He’s recording the dance for another person, another time, another place. In doing so, he’s missing out on being present in that time and place.
Which is what that little girl is. Utterly present.
I’ve been him, over and over again. In middle school, I dealt with my social anxiety by declaring myself official youth group photographer. I was a terrible photographer, and literally no one asked me to take pictures. I just figured out that by taking photos, I didn’t have to participate. I was recording for posterity, which meant I didn’t have to play games, join a group, or interact. I could stay on the periphery. I was afraid, so I hid.
I don’t know that guy. But maybe on some level he was afraid. Maybe he was afraid to dance. Or he was afraid he’d forget that moment. Or he was afraid that no one would believe it actually happened. Maybe he was afraid this was his moment to create a viral video, and he was going to miss it.
I realize that the only reason we know anything about this little girl is a video from the opposite perspective. These videos can bring people together, give them something to talk about. They give us smiles and chuckles. But do they give us joy?
It’s a question I have. Do the things we avoid or put off or hide from in the moment give us joy later? Maybe a little bit. There’s a lot about joy I don’t understand. But I do know that the times I’ve been the most joyful are when I’ve been fully present, and it’s a moment that cannot be replicated.
But joy can be manifest in so many ways, and others’ joys add to our own. It seems to me, in my limited experience, that joy is two things: an openness, a willingness to engage in the beauty of the world and be delighted by it. And a split-second decision to embrace that delight, to let it show on your face, to look a fool in a world that too highly values seriousness.
It is a serious world. It has weighed heavy on me, for in the midst of finals, feeling my own exhaustion and seeing the tired panic on the faces of my 38 18-year-olds, there have been so many things to grieve. So many Pakistani children died recently. So much systematic racial oppression to grieve. So many African communities ravaged by Ebola. This world is bloody and painful and often hateful. It’s a hard world to be joyful in.
And yet, there’s the dance, which (perhaps to my Baptist roots’ horror) seems like prayer to me sometimes. Sometimes I pray even when I don’t feel like it, and in doing so, I remember why I do it. Sometimes you dance before you know you’re joyful, and the dance makes you joyful.
I dragged myself away from HGTV and YouTube last week for a Christmas party. In order to combat feeling sick-ish, I drank a lot of water and put on a red dress. I figured that would be enough to get me through the night. The party was spirited, and the wine flowed red and white. Lovely men and strong women sat around a piano with their mugs of boozy hot chocolate and sang Christmas carols, the two violins filling in the harmonies. And then, finally, the couches were moved aside, and the dancing began.
I’ve talked about the dancing before, about how it’s enthusiastic but not always well executed. The songs are terrible, and the rhythm is sporadic, and that’s what makes it great. It’s been a year since I’ve stayed long enough for the dancing. I was raised well in the Baptist tradition, and save for a brief foray into swing dancing to impress a boy, I’ve never been one to dance. My limbs struggle to even walk in a straight line, so dancing is generally out.
But that night, the music began and a friend beckoned from the room where the traditional circle was already grooving like the white kids they were. She caught my gaze and crooked her finger. I had a decision to make: do I watch the joy, take a photo to remember what was or what could have been? Or do I seize it, even in the midst of the serious darkness?
I kicked off my high heels and joined the dance.