JOY is my favorite word in the English language. I like it for its impact in just a few letters. I love to play it in Words with Friends or Scrabble because I feel as if I am sharing a little bit of joy with my opponent. And, I challenge you to say it without smiling just a little, even if only on the inside.
In this time of COVID, I have been reflecting on the need for a return of COLLECTIVE JOY. This term was coined more than a decade ago by author and columnist Barbara Ehrenreich who wrote Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy. In this scholarly history of dance, the author explores the human impulse to dance, and its seemingly constant suppression throughout history.
Ehrenreich writes about “the desire for collective joy, historically expressed in revels of feasting, costuming, and dancing.” Communal celebrations and mass festivities date to Medieval times and are central to Western tradition. In recent centuries, however, Ehrenreich asserts that the festive tradition has been repressed, but, she states, “the celebratory impulse is too deeply ingrained in human nature ever to be completely extinguished.” I credit Ehrenreich with naming a condition that contains so much spirit and ability to inspire. In her definition, collective joy involves “music, synchronized movement, costumes, and a feeling of loss of self.”
On the first day of school we always hold an All School Meeting where I unveil my word of the year. My first year the word was Joy, and this, my sixth year I selected Belong. I played a music video from the animated film Spirit Untamed called You Belong, meant to be our anthem for the year. Before I played it, I asked all of the students to stand up, take a deep breath, and then I announced a Dance Party! The students and their teachers screamed and laughed and danced — together. It was a truly joyous moment and the perfect start to this academic year.
Brené Brown also wrote about collective joy, and collective pain, in Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone. Brown encourages us to share collective joy. “People with a sense of true belonging also spend time sharing emotional experiences with large and diverse groups — whether those groups are found at sporting events, live music, church services, or vigils,” writes Brown. “The more we’re willing to seek out moments of collective joy and show up for experiences of collective pain — for real, in person, not online — the more difficult it becomes to deny our human connection, even with people we may disagree with.”
The COVID pandemic has certainly brought us collective pain, and now that we are finally able to go to family gatherings, weddings, live sports events, and concerts, collective joy is thankfully increasing. A research study in 2017 states that, “Collective assemblies (like games, concerts, or plays) contribute to greater meaning, positive emotions, and social connection in our lives.” Thankfully, collective joy is inherent in our culture and we definitely need to welcome it back with open arms and hearts. It is the only way for us to get through to the other side of COVID. Collective pain needs collective joy to help with recovery and renewal.
Joy brought me to Kent School and continues to make me appreciate each and every day spent at school. From the joyful learning I witnessed on my very first visit to yesterday, joy is woven into all that we do. The first home soccer and field hockey games we played this fall were glorious and joyful. Students were so happy to be back on our fields and parents were thrilled to be on campus. Faculty members came out on some beautiful autumn afternoons to cheer on our Ospreys. We had not celebrated these teams for two years, and the feeling of joy was palpable.
Traditionally, on the last day of school before winter break we hold a Holiday Concert celebrating holidays around the world. This year we are going to hold the concert outdoors on the porch of our new front entrance. It will be the first performance that we have invited all parents to attend in almost two years, and will serve to christen our new entrance. I cannot wait to see all our students singing in Kent School winter hats, and I know the collective holiday joy will be contagious.
Kent School Graduation, pre-COVID and during COVID, is another great example of collective joy. The love and the joy mirrored in the faces of the graduates and their proud parents never fade from my memory. Collectively, and singularly, each and every guest at Graduation holds hope for the bright future of our graduates. Collective joy, collective hope, and collective love together in one place is a very powerful threesome.
I believe that sharing my joy with students is contagious, and let’s face it, we all need a JOY pandemic right now. Each day I set out to make at least one student’s day more joyful. It may be a birthday acknowledgment, a comment about their game the previous day, or recognition for artwork or writing. Delighting in a student’s personal success brings both of us joy. Etched in my mind’s eye is each and every smile I have received from a student who is grateful to be acknowledged, valued, and celebrated.
Let’s start a collective JOY pandemic. I will volunteer to be patient zero. You are an incredible human and I love you. Now you are exposed, so go ahead, spread joy.