One of the things that has struck me in all the interviews I’ve done on the subject of joy over the past 6 months or so is that many people have talked about moments of joy as moments where they felt “small.” At first I found this perplexing — it doesn’t fit with the expansive, larger-than-life, abundant nature of joy — so I dug deeper.
When talking about joy, people often talk about time spent with families, vacations, successes, and simple pleasures. They also talk a lot about experiences with nature, and often these are experiences with nature’s enormity. People talk about wrapping their arms around a giant redwood and realizing that tree has seen a world their grandparents didn’t even see, and may outlive even their grandchildren. They talk about sitting on a beach and contemplating the far horizon. They talk about stargazing and wondering at the contrast between the marvelous stillness they feel and the knowledge that they are actually hurtling through space at great speed. They talk about witnessing migrations of birds or vast schools of fish or seeing a world under a microscope.
I realized that small is about feeling in context. It’s about a realignment of perspective, an understanding that your worries about the noise your car’s muffler is making or the extra cookie you had at lunch are inconsequential. It’s a scale shift — what were big problems are now small ones. They don’t go away, they just reassume proper proportion, and in their place is a joy that comes from the freedom from all that pressure. It’s the ultimate kind of transcendence — transcendence of the self, where we can step outside the identity we continually build and inhabit and be free for a moment.
The Galapagos made me feel this way, the enormity of the sea and sky all around. Driftwood is like an artifact of this enormity, its gnarled surfaces a text of the ocean’s power written in a language we all understand. Perhaps this is why driftwood is so often collected and brought home as a souvenir. Not just because it is beautiful, but because it makes us feel joyfully small.