IndieWeb Carnival July 2023: Moments of Joy

Aug 2, 2023 • Yousef Amar • 7 min read

The topic of July's IndieWeb Carnival, hosted by James, is "Moments of Joy". The discerning reader might notice that it's not July anymore, and I'm two days late for this technically, but I thought I'd do it for myself regardless.

I figured I'd do a similar stream-of-thought/freewriting post like last month, as it's easier for me to knock out a post that way. Like last month's cooking topic, this is a similarly difficult theme for me. In another life I might have been a Vulcan, with how disconnected I currently am to my emotions!

My most recent therapist asked me to document any emotions I feel in an emotion log. I had been doing this for quite some time now. In the beginning, I documented things with more care; pausing after events to think about if I feel anything, or what a normal person would feel. Then I would only document events, and reflect on these events later, writing down the emotions. Eventually, as things got repetitive, I would write down only the important things, or anything new.

I've probably learned three main things from this practice:

A lot of this is probably my own doing. Through a mixture of upbringing, life adversity, and Stoic values, I've come to equate emotional reactions with illogical weakness. Ask anyone who knows me, and they'll probably describe me as "calm". Ask certain others, and they'll probably describe me as unnaturally calm. This is not something I need to put effort into.

On the second point, I remember once during my PhD, I was sat next to a professor while getting completely reamed out by international partners (the partnership was a failure). I handled it like a large corporation might handle a customer complaint. When we were done, the professor didn't even mention the partnership, he simply sat in amazement saying that there's no way he wouldn't have flipped out at them if he were in my shoes. I do not enjoy conflict, it is definitely a source of stress, but it's something you just have to deal with.

On that note, I've very often been wronged. Like that professor, often I'm told by others that they would have handled it completely differently. Once, for a particularly bad case, I was told by someone that they would have understood if I resorted to murder. Not to be dramatic or anything but I just don't react that way.

That's not to say that I don't feel a sense of justice -- if anything, that's one of the few emotions I feel the strongest (if you can consider it an emotion). I will die on the hill of justice, even if it doesn't make sense due to time / effort / legal fees, except I'll do it systematically and without emotion. I actively try to be very careful with the battles I pick in that regard, so I'm not consumed by them.

In fact, that very sense of justice, or need to see a more equitable world, is often the source of my negative emotions. If I didn't rein myself in, I would spend all day angry at governments, corporations, and other people. I would probably fully descend into a misanthropic isolation or get carried away by radical ideology.

That might sound like I've beaten my emotions into submission over the years, but that's not the case. This mental control has become automatic and involuntary. It does mean that I am able to do risky/stressful things that others would be afraid of, and it has allowed me to push my career forward, but there's a negative side too.

I'm getting sidetracked; this post is meant to be about joy! One week, my therapist specifically asked me to focus on things that bring joy, in those words. I unfortunately came back empty-handed. I cannot remember when I last felt joy. I don't mean unbridled joy but just the baseline emotion.

The closest I could get is "contentment". I feel this after I tick off many boxes. I feel this when things are in their right place. There will always be things that aren't quite right, so that feeling is not complete, but it's something.

I'm able to identify the times I'm meant to feel joy but I simply don't feel it. I'm not motivated by enjoyment anyway, but rather by duty and my own goals/values. Sometimes people find it admirable how I'm able to persevere through distinctly unpleasant thing, but I'm not really persevering, it's just that they have to be done and it doesn't really matter what I feel.

Hard drugs mess you up because they change the baseline levels of certain neurotransmitters like dopamine, in a very drastic way. The Hedonic Treadmill ramped up to eleven.

The hardships in my life have certainly not been the worst ever, and today I live a life that a lot of people would envy, but I feel like past events have numbed me, rather than change my baseline. I do wish I could experience the world in the way some others do.

José loves piano recitals. There was one he told me makes him cry like a baby every time. He could no longer go to that concert, so offered me his tickets. I told him they were wasted on me. Beauty just doesn't get through to me. I have never cried tears of joy.

I actually haven't cried at all since I was a small child. Funnily enough, I remember the day I stopped. I was at home, and I was crying for some reason that I've forgotten. When I was little, I was sensitive, and cried more than average. Then, on that day, something clicked in my mind. I realised that my crying had no effect. It wasn't helping me or the situation. And just like that, I stopped, and I haven't cried since[1].

A similar snap came when I was in Egypt. In Egypt, we have a species of fly called the Sahara fly. They're very persistent, can actually sting, and if you try to wave them away, they'll dodge you perfectly and land back on the same spot. They don't care about wind either.

One day, I was losing my mind over these flies. They just weren't leaving me alone. And just when I thought that I might break something, I had an epiphany that they were only bothering me because I let them. They were just flies being flies and they won't actually do any real damage to me, except to the extent that I let them affect me emotionally. I suddenly had control over these emotions. I could feel the anger slip away like water off of a ducks back. Later, I found that I could tap into this "zen mode" whenever I wanted, until I no longer did it consciously. I let the flies be and they never bothered me again.

This might sound odd, but I don't see people as free agents. I find it hard to be genuinely angry at an individual directly. It's a little bit easier for me to be angry at their circumstances or the institutions that have failed them.

The best way I can describe this is to compare it to the weather. You can't be angry at a force of nature for cancelling the football game. The weather is just the weather. This kind of thinking helped me a lot when I was a school teacher in a relatively rough school. Kids are like forces of nature, you can't be angry at their actions, you can only decide how to respond to them. This was long before I learned of Amor Fati.

I would like to end this line of thought on a positive note. The closest thing in my emotion log to joy may be "gratitude". On the topic of Stoic virtues, I'm a proponent of the concept of Memento Mori. Gratitude to me stems from an awareness over the fragility of life and the status quo. The bleak future I imagine also helps me appreciate the present more.

Having lived the life I live, I've already won, everything else is just a bonus. I'm constantly aware of the positive state of my health and those close to me, my ability to easily acquire food and fresh water, and the doors my European passport have opened for me since I got it. If I dwell on this too long, it turns into an anger as to how those few bits of paper are also the reason those same doors are closed to my many cousins (or a lot of others for that matter), but the appreciation also translates to a duty/responsibility to not let the opportunities I have go to waste.

I do not find joy in material possessions. In fact, it does the opposite of joy. A minimalist life allows me to feel more freedom. I've moved a lot over my life, and on one hand I learned not to get too attached to things, but on the other hand it's useful to not be weighed down by a lot of stuff. I feel a sense of satisfaction through simplifying things. You could call this some variation of joy?

It brings me extra contentment/satisfaction to create equity by uplifting others who need it, as I feel like I'm performing my duty / living up to my values. This is something I spend a lot of time thinking about, to find ways to maximise my impact. I'm far from being able to connect well with my emotions, it's very much a journey I'm still on, but perhaps this is also something bordering joy? Let's see how it goes!

  1. To be fair, I also suffer from dry eyes, thanks to staring at monitors for so long, so maybe there have been times where my my brain told my eyes to tear up, but my tear ducts simply weren't up to the task. ↩︎