JENNY R. SUSSER, PH.D.

POWER & PERFORMANCE SPORT PSYCHOLOGY SERVICES

Underappreciated Joy

Posted by on Dec 7, 2019

Ah, the good ol’ days

One of my best friends is in recovery. Let me define recovery here so we are all talking about the same thing. Jane, not her real name of course, is recovering from her life. Makes me think perhaps we all are. As a matter of fact, the more I watch her navigate her life, the more I’m convinced we are all in need of recovering from something. She is a marvel to watch, not just because I care so deeply for her, but because of the gusto with which she is facing her life. She is all-in on her life now, as if her life depends upon it. Funny how easy it is to live without being “all-in,” it actually had not occurred to me as possible until I watched Jane. The brain seeks the path of least resistance, always, this is science. What is the easiest, fastest, least energy-consuming way to get from point A to point B? If the brain had a motto, that would be it: survive by using the least amount of energy possible because you might need it to run from the Sabre tooth tiger in the tree someday. Save your energy, save yourself. Lazy is the norm based on the design of the brain. We are meant to be rather ordinary, actually. Wishing this came as more of a relief, I wonder what happened?

The concept of “recovery” was a center piece at the corporate training company I used to work for. But it was all about energy recovery, not addiction or even surgical. How do we recover energy after spending it all so we can get up and do it again tomorrow? We have gotten quite good at spending energy, you know, the whole do-do-do thing and our endless “to-do” lists. Being exhausted is a badge of honor in the corporate, or any other world, now. “I’m so exhausted,” could be the theme song, well, for me, too. I have been “exhausted” for years now, how long have you been exhausted? I don’t think I know anyone who isn’t, my sixteen-year-old niece included. I was with her a month ago and was shocked by how tired she says she is all the time. I tried to remember what it was like for me when I was sixteen, a sophomore in high school, bored to tears, and having trouble finding enough stuff to do. My reaction is to long for those days, wondering if I could do “bored” again? I don’t think so. But what it made me think about was the design of our energy use.

As a Gen X’er, boredom was part of the deal because our recovery was built in. I graduated from high school in 1985 and at the time, cable tv had just launched. Growing up, we had one television, in the basement, with a “rabbit ears” antenna, and four stations. FOUR stations. Oh yeah, and no remote to change the channel. Want to watch something else? Get up and turn the dial once or twice—with your hand as you stood in front of the tv and your brother yelled for you to get out of the way. Being younger, I always had to get up and change the channel. It was not worth it to sit for hours, pressing a button to scroll through hundreds of stations with nothing to watch, over and over again with the hopes that something will entice my brain enough to want to set the remote down. Nope, Sesame Street and Mister Rogers were the morning shows, soap operas were on during the day, news was at 6 and 11 pm only, and there were sitcoms or the hour-long dramas in the evenings. Otherwise, white noise from the tv. There was radio, which I remember listening to a lot. Vinyl records were expensive, and collections were rare. 8-track tapes made way for cassette tapes, and I remember waiting, with finger on the record button, to try to tape your favorite song off the radio so you didn’t have to buy the whole tape! Phones were attached to the wall and the invention of the super long cord was a game-changer back then. I remember watching mom, with the phone receiver balanced between her ear and shoulder, twisting her neck, roaming around the kitchen as far as the coiling cord would allow. Ah, those were the days: recovery was invisible because we all had it, whether we wanted it or not. Everything was closed on Sunday. Come home from school or work, and there really wasn’t anything to do except relax, chill, read, listen to music, some homework (some), and dinner. The pace was decidedly different. As was our health, as was our connection to ourselves, and each other.

Now, there is too much in the way. The blessing/curse of technology has created a monster of action, making “inaction” only for the lazy, sick, or I don’t even know what else. I watch people wherever I go, it must be a psychologist’s habit, but I can’t help it. No one just sits around anymore, unless you are old. I sat on the plane this week next to a 92-year-old woman. The flight was about 3 hours and she just sat the whole time, didn’t watch anything or read, she simply sat. And yes, she was completely with it, see how we do that? We chatted a bit at the beginning and end because I always say hello to the person next to me. Side note: amazing how many people don’t even say hello back or look at me with their obligatory grunt in reply. I listened to some music and then slept. She sat. Peaceful and looking contented, I was jealous. Now, there is too much in the way. I sit and my mind goes off. I meditate, which helps to mediate, but it still goes. Virtual to-do lists, fantasizing of future arguments, self-criticism, worry, and wondering about tomorrow fill my mental dance card. When I was young, did my mom have all this constant mental chatter?

All of the things we did in the past as a matter of course, we struggle to manually insert now. The corporate training program coached people to get recovery during the day so that by the time they got home to the people that matter, they had a little something left in the tank. How did we coach them? Chill, relax, sit and read or listen to music for a stolen minute during the day. Close your office door so you can meditate to an app for three minutes between meetings or calls. Breathe. Yes, I actually have to coach people to breathe. Hang out with someone and talk about things other than work. Exercise or go for a walk. All the things we used to do naturally, we now set reminders for in our phones that never leave us. Jane got lost in all of this, just like the rest of us. We all have a tipping point and some of us reach ours sooner than later. So then, how do you recover?

Jane is working hard to find the good things in life again as part of her effort to restore balance. Overwhelmed and overburdened for too long, she, just like me, wound up with her eye on the wrong ball and lost her footing (to mix way too many metaphors, but you get the point). Now, she is looking for the things that create happiness and make her feel good again. I learn from her and her reports every day. The simplicity is stunning, just like the results. We have a horse farm and Mette, my wife, is an accomplished and talented horsewoman (to say the least, of course). She has a wonderful horse and he is so wonderful she can be cantering along and reach up and remove his bridle, mid-stride. Without missing a step, he will canter along, do a flying change, trot, walk, and stop, all with just a strap around his neck. Seeing this for the first time as a rider is awe-inspiring. Then, there is doing it for the first time. Mette has a new woman riding for her and the other day, let her ride the wonder horse without his bridle for the first time. Jane was there. “I watched her face and body as she rode him around, with a childlike excitement that could only be experienced, never described,” Jane began. “She was joy-full, as in, completely filled with joy, and all of a sudden, so was I. Jenny, I felt a depth and experience of joy I’m not sure I ever have.” Jane continued to fail to be able to describe it, just like the rider, but it didn’t matter, I was getting it.

As I hung up the phone from Jane, I had a feeling of appreciation for her joy that moved me. I did not expect this nor the impact it was having on me. I was grazing my retired horse while talking on the phone, a normal multi-tasking routine for me and Roble. In that moment, I felt that joy as I impulsively grabbed my horse and started hugging him. A special horse, he lets me hug him and sometimes even seems to hug me back. I was holding him tight as my heart reached into him and glowed. He stood still, as if knowing this was an important moment for me, for us. As I breathed him in deeply, I felt such love, I couldn’t possibly describe it. And as you read this, I suspect you are flashing back to a similar memory of an indescribable experience of love or joy, the kind Jane failed to describe but succeeded in sharing the experience of. The cool thing is we have these experiences available to us all, each day. I even notice them most days, but what I learned this week, on that day, is the tendency to write them off as less important due perhaps to their fleeting nature. But the irony is they are not fleeting. Neither is the frustration or exhaustion. They both are manually operated, with the emphasis in the wrong place for some unexplainable reason. I would love to say here that all you have to do is feel the love or joy more frequently, but the degree of difficulty is higher for joy and love because of the depth they require. It is easy, even safe to be frustrated or exhausted, but joy, that takes some energy, and as we know, the brain resists that. I now can un-lazy those moments to connect and reconnect with that joy, that love, frequently and manually, to restore and recover some much-needed energy. I had no idea how much I appreciated the time with my Roble and what it does for me. Thanks to Jane, now I do.