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Overtaken by Joy
By Ardis Whitman
Article appeared in Reader’s Digest May 1965
As author Robert Louis Stevenson says, to miss the joy is to miss all.
It was a day in late June, grey and depressing, with clouds hanging low. My husband and I were driving to Nova Scotia, Canada, for a much needed vacation, both of us more tired than we cared to admit. We travelled glumly, hoping to reach rest and dinner before the rain came. Suddenly, on a lonely stretch of highway flanked by woods, the storm struck. The forest vanished in a great deluge. Cascades of water shut us in, making driving impossible. We pulled off onto the shoulder of the road and stopped.
Then, as though someone had turned off a celestial faucet, it ended. A thin radiance, like a spray of gold, spread out from the clouds, catching the top of the trees. Every blade of grass was crystalline as the sun flashed on trembling drops. The very road shone. And then a rainbow arched across the sky. But more than that: on our right was a pond, and in the pond was the end of the rainbow! It was as though this arch of living colour had been built for us alone. We could hardly speak for awe and joy.
A friend of mine has described a similar experience. She had walked out on a lonely beach at twilight. It was a time of grief for her, and loneliness was what she wanted. Offshore, across the darkening sea, was a single low island. Presently she was aware of a dim light moving on the island, and then came the splash of oars and the scrape of a boat leaving the shore. She made out the outlines of a fishing boat, and in it the figure of a man. He rowed a little way and anchored. My friend told me that, after a while, she felt an intense and glowing sense of oneness with that silent figure. It was as though sea and sky and night and those two solitary human beings were united in a kind of profound identity. “I was overtaken by joy,” she said.
Most of us have experienced such lighted moments, when we seem to understand ourselves and the world and, for a single instant, know the loveliness of living beings. But these moments vanish quickly, and we are almost embarrassed to admit that they have ever been, as though in doing so we betray a willingness to believe in what is not true.
However, psychologist Abraham Maslow of Brandeis University embarked some years ago on a study of average, healthy individuals and found that a great many report such experiences – “moments of great awe; moments of the most intense happiness or even rapture, ecstasy or bliss.” He has concluded that these experiences are often the expression of buoyant health.
In his files, for example, is the story of a young mother. Getting breakfast for her family, she hurried about the kitchen pouring orange juice and coffee, spreading jam on toast. The children were chattering; the sun streamed in on their faces; her husband was playing with the littlest one. All was as usual. But as she looked at them, she was suddenly so overcome by how much she loved them, by her feelings of good fortune, that she could scarcely speak for joy.
Here, too, is the story of a man who remembers a day when he went swimming alone and recalls “the crazy, childish joy with which he cavorted in the water like a fish”. He was so overwhelmed by his great happiness at being “so perfectly physical” that he shouted again and again with joy.Apparently almost anything may serve as the impetus of such joy – starshine on new snow; a sudden field of daffodils; a moment in marriage when hand reaches out to hand in the realization that this other person speaks as you speak, feels as you feel. Joy may wait,
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