Joy-Mongers Among Us

boysjog.jpgThere are many studies showing the health benefits of a more positive outlook. Other studies show how having that kind of outlook is actually a habit that can be cultivated. But, if your life feels like an endless series of stressful tasks, how do you start? Here’s a moment I had:

I was waiting for my daughter outside our local neurotic, wealthy, suburban, pressure-cooker high school when a flock of cross-country runners went swooping past. I’d heard that cross-country was different from the other strident, vicious local sports experiences (my daughter tried three last year–all remarkably consistent). In that one cross-country eyeful, I learned volumes about just how different a sports experience could be. Pounding on the pavement were 32 mostly reed-thin, uniformly pimply boys. As both my daughters have pointed out, a boy’s tendency to take off his shirt is inversely related to the hotness of his chest, and these boys were no exception to the rule. There were numerous chests so sunken and narrow that the nipples seemed to pointed at each other, as well as several sets of man-boobs.  Sweat gleamed and thin arms and chubby arms pumped.

At the apex of the comet-shape of the running crowd was a man in his early fifties, an experienced runner with the kind of hard stringiness that comes from decades of exercise. He had on a baseball cap and he talked to all the guys around him, shouting back and forth. He was surrounded by guys, guys grinning and jogging and bouncing with impatience. Guys puffed up with pride and shifting to make room for others. They were loose and (frankly, there’s no other word for it) giggly. There was none of the stiffness or posing or thinly-veiled hostility or defensively crossed arms of all the other sports I’d seen at the high school. Despite the sun and the heat and the sweat, not a single person was frowning. They flew past, and I saw a couple of the guys turn to run more slowly backwards, shouting encouragement to the smiling boy at the end, who waved and picked up the pace, too breathless to answer. In the eight seconds it took for them to pound past, a ray of joy burst through mental clouds that I didn’t even know were hovering–I could feel what it was like to be a teenager again, and the unexpected, inexplicable joy of being accepted in a group, no questions asked. The air seemed to vibrate after them from hearts pounding and skin trickling with good clean honest sweat and young, growing bodies getting stronger. Or maybe I was just hallucinating from inhaling an exhaust-cloud of pheromones.

The point is, the man who ran with them, the one who set the tone and led the way–he’s an ordinary volunteer parent. He isn’t even a coach and he isn’t paid. He undoubtedly has to leave work early and suffer the glares of co-workers to do this. What he’s doing is teaching joy–the joy of a job consistently done, the joy of pride in being with each other and giving a good effort, the joy of the day and the joy of exercise. These are not the lessons that are important to this year’s championship–these are the lessons that are important for life. Even if he isn’t aware of it, he’s teaching these boys (when they’re at the age where they’re mortified by their parents) how to be a man. He’s an official Doc Gurley joy-monger, and there’s no way he’s thanked enough for what he’s doing for those boys’ lives. Look around you–there are joy-mongers everywhere, hiding out in plain sight. See if you can identify one this week. Tell the story of a local joy-mongering hero to our comments section and spread the joy even further.

P.S. Yes, my daughter’s now running cross-country. It’s as great as you could hope it would be.

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