In the useful category is a wonderful piece about joy by Zadie Smith on The New York Review of Books. I agree with her whole-heartedly that there is nothing so terrifying as joy.
A final thought: sometimes joy multiplies itself dangerously. Children are the infamous example. Isn’t it bad enough that the beloved, with whom you have experienced genuine joy, will eventually be lost to you? Why add to this nightmare the child, whose loss, if it ever happened, would mean nothing less than your total annihilation? It should be noted that an equally dangerous joy, for many people, is the dog or the cat, relationships with animals being in some sense intensified by guaranteed finitude. You hope to leave this world before your child. You are quite certain your dog will leave before you do. Joy is such a human madness.
The writer Julian Barnes, considering mourning, once said, “It hurts just as much as it is worth.” In fact, it was a friend of his who wrote the line in a letter of condolence, and Julian told it to my husband, who told it to me. For months afterward these words stuck with both of us, so clear and so brutal. It hurts just as much as it is worth.
Also useful and well worth reading is a fantastic piece by Nikhil Goyal about empathy on the Globe and Mail site. The article gives some alarming statistics:
Today, there is a dearth of empathy in young people. After analyzing data among almost 14,000 college students over the last 30 years, a University of Michigan study two years ago concluded that college students are 40 per cent less empathetic than their counterparts in 1979. Indeed, the most significant drop has been in the past decade. What’s more, cases of bullying and suicides are climbing at an alarming pace. That means empathy education is needed more than ever before.
The fact that the article was written by a high school student does give one some hope for the future.
There has been a lot of talk lately about teaching non-fiction in the schools rather than fiction. There seems to be an attitude that there is something frivolous and lightweight about fiction. But it's through reading fiction that people (and young people in particular) learn to apprehend the world as someone other than themselves. They learn empathy.
I've been thinking a lot about Susin Nielsen's The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen, winner of this year's Governor General's Award for Children's Text. The novel is about a boy who goes into a school with a gun and does a terrible thing. Only really it's not about that, it's about being related to the boy who could do such a terrible thing and how do you live in the altered world you are left with. Only really it's only partly about that as it's also about a lot of other things: first among them being empathy.
“You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.” ― James Baldwin
Empathy, joy, fiction. It's all connected.