Robin Williams is my favourite all time comedian. At his best, his jokes would come flying out faster than what my brain could process them, but I still found myself laughing pre—cognitively and only understanding why I was laughing once my brain had a chance to catch up. He was famous for his talent for improvisational comedy, something he demonstrated one night for a group of budding actors, using nothing but a pink scarf.
And yet, despite being one of the funniest people in history, he was plagued by depression and drug abuse and died by suicide in 2014.
In an interview after his death, James Lipton poignantly described Robin Williams,
“In the end, Robin is Pagliacci. He is Pagliacci, the cliche of the clown who cries – that was there every single minute, every single minute of his life, and what he did was he spared us the hard part, and he gave us the joy. What an extraordinary gift that was.”
It’s hard to understand how someone can be so seemingly full of joy, or at the very least, give so much joy to others, and still be so plagued with melancholy and psychological pain. The life and death of Robin Williams certainly challenges our understanding of the true meaning of joy.
So it’s pertinent to ask: What is joy?
Is joy laughter? Is it pleasure? Is joy the same as happiness? Is joy the absence of sadness? Is it the absence of suffering? Is joy within us, or outside our control? The answer is probably a combination of all of these things.
My dictionary explains that joy is “a feeling of great pleasure and happiness”. The ancient Greeks considered that joy had two different parts – physical pleasures associated with biological needs, and feelings of higher pleasure. Physical pleasures, such as eating and sex, are known as ‘hedonia’ while the higher feelings of pleasure, associated with the appreciation of art, music, et cetera, as ‘eudaimonia’ (‘a life well lived’) after the distinction that Aristotle made in his writings on the subject.
Is joy the same as happiness or pleasure? C. S. Lewis didn’t think so, “I call it Joy, which is here a technical term and must be sharply distinguished both from Happiness and Pleasure. Joy (in my sense) has indeed one characteristic, and one only, in common with them; the fact that anyone who has experienced it will want it again … I doubt whether anyone who has tasted it would ever, if both were in his power, exchange it for all the pleasures in the world. But then Joy is never in our power and Pleasure often is.”
George Bernard Shaw considered joy to be something greater than oneself, “This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being thoroughly worn out before you are thrown on the scrap heap; the being a force of Nature instead of a feverish selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.”
It’s certainly true that depressed people can still laugh, and like Robin Williams, can make others laugh, so joy can certainly be both superficial and deep, and neither are mutually exclusive.
To add something else into the mix, the Christmas message of joy comes from the birth of the Saviour (Luke 2:10-12), so one of the Biblical meanings of joy stems from hope.
So the single definitive concept of true joy is elusive. Perhaps trying to define joy is like trying to define the ocean. We have all experienced the ocean and its beauty, and many of us have felt the coolness on our bodies as we have swam in it, or felt the awesome power of its currents and waves. Yet the ocean is so deep, so powerful and so mysterious that no one can ever truely comprehend it for itself.
We have all experienced the wonder and beauty of joy, although it is so deep, so powerful and so mysterious that no one can ever truely comprehend joy.
Not that it will every stop us from trying.
If you are struggling with mental illness and you need urgent assistance, please talk to someone straight away:
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline ~ 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
Lifeline Aotearoa 24/7 Helpline ~ 0800 543 354
Samaritans ~ 116 123
For other countries: Your Life Counts maintains a list of crisis services across a number of countries: http://www.yourlifecounts.org/need-help/crisis-lines.