Finding Microjoys Between the Shadows of Grief and Loss
Cyndie Spiegel on a More Complicated Theory of Joy
Within a four-month period, during a global pandemic, my 32-year-old nephew was killed and my beloved mother passed away. One month later, my sibling had a stroke and experienced sudden heart failure. His doctor informed us that they weren’t sure what state he would be left in because it took nearly 12 minutes to resuscitate him. My oldest brother and I—who had just buried our mother and his firstborn son—had to advocate tirelessly to make sure that our sibling was receiving the care he needed. He spent the next two months in the cardiac ICU.
Because of COVID, we couldn’t visit the hospital, so instead we relied on the telephone, calling three times a day for updates during this exhausting two-month period. (To this day, the sound of “on hold” Muzak played during phone calls still causes my heart to beat too quickly, leaving me expecting bad news.)*
During this same time, with no explanation at all, I experienced an abrupt ending to a lifelong friendship—a friend I’d known for decades simply stopped communicating with me. And it all culminated in my own breast cancer diagnosis shortly thereafter. The diagnosis felt impossible to comprehend amidst everything else. But in that moment all I could do was acknowledge (to whatever God was listening) that I had zero control over any of it. And then, I fully surrendered.
All of this, dear friends, occurred within a 10-month span of time.
But here is what I also came to know during that same time frame:
I am deeply appreciated and loved. My community spans the entire world. And, from one pole to another, my community showed up with deep empathy and kindness when I needed it most. Even, or in spite of not knowing what to ask for, I got exactly what I needed. The recognition of this beautiful truth is a microjoy that could easily have gone unnoticed while I
dwelled deep inside of my own grief.
The truest of friends sit alongside us through all of it. And sometimes they show up under the guise of weird cat memes, rogue bouquets of flowers left on a doorstep, simply stated “I love you”s, and a whole lot of off-color jokes. Having friends who inherently understood me well enough to know that humor could temporarily break the spell of my grief: that, too, is a microjoy.
I still have a whole lot to be deeply grateful for. Losing so much so quickly was devastating. And. But. That doesn’t change what I do have: a deeply loving husband, ridiculously funny siblings, a business built on forging connections, an inspiring and brightly colored home, hard-won honest friendships, vast community, and adorable (though highly disrespectful) cats. Appreciating that love and loss are close dance partners in this lifetime—that lesson is also a powerful microjoy.Those occasional moments of lightness amidst darkness are profound gifts that allow us the time that we need to come back to ourselves.
Once we’ve journeyed the depth of loss—whether physical, emotional, tangible, or intangible—from the core of our being comes the capacity to seize every experience differently. To become more curious and empathetic, to live more fully and be less afraid. We already know what it means to fall to our knees in despair and pray to whoever is listening to please, please make it all stop. And in those times, we understand what a radical act it is to observe microjoys; to boldly choose moments of reprieve and joy even in the midst of heartbreak. One foot in front of the other as we slowly trudge forward. Or perhaps even as we stand in this moment, perfectly still.
Microjoys often emerge from the muck, similar to how a lotus flower resurrects itself out of mud over and over again. The beauty of this flower is that its roots are bound in the mud that it needs in order to bloom. Its perpetually beautiful reemergence is born of muck. Literally.
And in many ways, so is ours.
Microjoys transform the narrative of what it means to experience joy—from something ethereal and often unattainable on many days to a phenomenon that is genuine and deeply accessible for everyone, always.
In a world fueled by the constant buzz of outsized affirmations and a “more is more” mentality of happiness, microjoys are the polar opposite. Rather than loudly proclaiming who we are and what we want in an effort to seek out happiness, microjoys simply ask us to notice what is squarely in front of us. To acknowledge and appreciate the mundane beauty of what is already here, in the present.
Microjoys teach us to hone our ability to live within the gray, neither perfect nor imperfect, and still find beauty there, regardless of what may be happening outside of ourselves and outside of our immediate control. We perceive so much of the world in extremes, and often opposites. Good or bad. Rich or poor. Right or wrong. Happiness or sadness. Either or. But rarely do we perceive things as both. All of it. This and that.
Nonetheless, that exact place of this- and that-ness is where microjoys reside. Inside the wide gray area, somewhere between the vastness of black and white. The place of accepting and holding both this . . . and that as truth. Like deep grief and intermittent moments of pure joy, simultaneously. Those occasional moments of lightness amidst darkness are profound gifts that allow us the time that we need to come back to ourselves. And those gifts are the deepest expression of microjoys.
In life, we will experience moments of sublime happiness and, alternatively, moments of fall‑to‑our-knees heartbreak. All of it is essential to the human experience. And even during the most challenging of times, microjoys are still available to us.There will be moments that unmoor us from ourselves, but alternatively, moments that propel us higher than we ever knew possible with gratitude and happiness.
Microjoys are revolutionary. They shift our outdated beliefs about what it means to feel joy by offering us the insight to reconsider what joy means, particularly during the most difficult times. Though it is sometimes necessary to lean into sadness, grieving, and anger when experiencing hard things, even then, we deserve moments of reprieve. When we are grounded in the darkness, we are still entitled to a sliver of light. And for our own resilience, hope, and well—being, we must learn how to let light in. Day by day and moment by moment.
Microjoys don’t guarantee our happiness. Instead, they offer us the opportunity to consciously bear witness to joy in all forms, over and over again. They are momentary choices that shift our mindset, long term. Experiencing microjoys isn’t always the obvious choice (or the necessary one) but when we fundamentally understand that joy is often a choice, our perspective on life can transform into one of hope and possibility. Even, or especially, during our most difficult days.
After living through some of the hardest things, I could no longer sustain the all-encompassing, overeager approach to happiness that is deeply rooted in our culture. Only two years prior, I’d written a bestselling book called A Year of Positive Thinking. Though the words in that book still ring true, I’ve also learned a more equitable and sustainable perspective on joy that focuses on the subtle, often quiet moments that buoy and carry us forward. One experience at a time.
During our lifetime we will encounter the full spectrum of experiences: the beautiful, the not‑so‑beautiful, and sometimes the tragic, too. There will be moments that unmoor us from ourselves, but alternatively, moments that propel us higher than we ever knew possible with gratitude and happiness. All of it impacts who we become and how we move through the world around us.
Microjoys are not about picture-perfect circumstances. Instead, they remind us how wild, imperfect, and precious life is by teaching us deep wisdom and profound beauty within the awareness of every moment. Our responsibility is to be conscious enough to notice them.
*Our sibling is thriving and healing today. Thankfully.
From Microjoys: Finding Hope (Especially) When Life Is Not Okay by Cyndie Spiegel, to be published by Penguin Life, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2023 by Cyndie Spiegel.