The French have a lovely phrase - “la joie de vivre” - which loosely translates into the joy of living. This phrase has been floating around in my head all week, and as I sit on the deck of the S. S. Catherine, docked presently in Avignon on the Rhône River, I thought I’d share some of the thoughts that have been marinating.
What are you about?
We are constantly bombarded with a steady stream of messages telling us what we should do, how we should dress, what we should think about, and what our lives ought to look like. These mimetic models come in the form of ads trying to sell us not just a product but a lifestyle, curated and idealized Instagram photos showing us that our friends have it all, and everything in between.
So how do we find signal in all that noise? How do we find out not what others think we should do, but what we want our lives to be characterized by? How do we find that joie de vivre that allows us to live lives consistent with our values in a way that brings us a daily and sustained joy?
First, we need to look up. Someone once said that
“If you’re never looking up, you’re always just looking around”
There is immense value of having a viewpoint which transcends the mundane. Life is a series of connected moments that may at many times seem random and disconnected. It is up to us to add value and meaning to those moments such that over the course of our lives they string together to build a beautiful tapestry of our history.
By constantly looking around us and never looking up at the loftier things, we reduce our lives to the mundane and meaningless drivel of existence. However, if we deign to look up every so often and fix our eyes on the grand, we turn that mundane existence into rich and meaningful life. We begin to see our place in the grander scheme, and are able to take things in stride.
Looking up gives us context. It puts our lives in perspective. It allows us to see that we are a part of a greater whole. As the saying goes,
“If the vision is big enough, the details don’t matter”
If we’re able to see the grand story of Life with a capital “L”, then we are able to see our our lives fit into the picture, and when we’re able to do that the little bumps along the way seem to matter much less.
No matter what you see, no matter what the bigger picture looks like for you, no matter what piece of the big puzzle you believe you ought to play, live it. Run towards it. Constantly refine it. Nurture it. Engage with what you see upwards so that you can know what you value and believe and can therefore apply those things all around you.
Having a sharper view on what we’re about is but a starting point. We need to apply that understanding to our present reality.
From a young age we’re taught to think about the future. Even before children enter a hyper-competitive school system young parents are constantly trying to give their children a leg up by signing them up for enhanced learning classes, math camps, language lessons, and everything under the sun that they can manage to afford and cram into an already-too-busy schedule.
Kids are then ushered through a grueling 12 year program designed with one single purpose in mind: college acceptance into the best school that you can both afford and qualify for. The next four years after that are designed to mold you into the perfect cog to fit into the American economic machine so that you can make good money and have a wonderful life.
Well what is that wonderful life? Having a family and kids of your own of course. And once you’re past parenting your own kids through to college, you’re saving for retirement to make sure you can end life well.
Surely somewhere along the way life itself must actually be lived, right?
While none of these things themselves are bad (I’m not at all advocating for us to abandon education) they are incomplete. They are not the only important thing in life. They are not even the most important thing in life.
It is good to think about the future, to plan for it, to be prepared. However, that needs to be balanced with living in the moment and being present.
Focus on each moment
To be present, to fully enjoy that joie de vivre, we need to learn to focus on each moment and to be present in it.
It’s worth explicitly pointing out that we should only begin focusing on the moments after we’ve taken the big picture context in mind. This is because the big picture context acts as a lens through which we filter each moment and allows us to view them with the right perspective.
It is in our nature to see the worst in each moment, to see fear and danger everywhere. This is an evolutionary imperative and has worked well for millions of years in keeping the human species alive. As such, it is a trait that we automatically apply to every situation, regardless of the fact that there are no longer bears, tigers, and other natural predators out to get us.
Filtering our experiences through the big picture context allows us to strip out that initial reaction and see each moment through the lens of our values. It is through this lens that we should focus on each moment, allowing ourselves to fully feel, fully embrace, fully love, fully cry.
La joie de vivre doesn’t only mean happiness; rather, it means a richer experience of each moment, happy or otherwise. By focusing on each of these moments, by being present through them instead of thinking about the next ones, and by releasing ourselves and allowing ourselves to fully be in them, we are more able to experience a richer, more vivid, and more sublime world.
My sons, my hope for you is that you’ll be able to experience life fully, that you will have no regrets about how you responded to the situations and circumstances that life threw your way. I love you boys!