Joy: The Fight vs. The Dance

I love dancing. Love it. Which is truly unfortunate because I am a horrible dancer. Nowadays I've limited my rug-cutting to weddings, bar mitzvahs and the occasional late-night bus party. However, when I was in college, I was a well established train-wreck on the dance floors of San Diego. Dancing was my chance to become a part of the song itself. I could lose my mind in the rhythm and let the song take over. this was my moment of release: in the ocean of sound around me, I could set myself free. Maybe a little too free.

Yes. Probably too free. To begin with, the faces that I make while dancing are, well... let's just say I've seen some pictures. It's comparable to a high-speed-crash: you have to look at the footage in slow-motion to really understand what went wrong. As far as I can tell, I employ four main looks in my dancing ensemble:

1. The white-man's-overbite
2. The confused-constipation-face
3. The fancy-eyebrow-dance
4. The blurry-baby-face

All of these compromising visages could be put in the general category of "unnecessary". No, I never did drugs, but I'm sure I would have a hard time convincing the officer on duty that I wasn't tripping on something while I was dancing.

Which is why I play rock and roll. It's a whole lot easier to say you've got moves like Jagger than say you got moves like Michael Jackson or James Brown. My Jr. High Led Zeppelin cover band illustrates my point: We might not have sounded great but we looked the part. Later on, (in my angst-y, high school, suburban, punk-rock phase) my friends and I would head down to SOMA to see our favorite Epitaph bands. The "dancing" at SOMA was easy to learn. Throwing my fist in the air with the rest of the pubescent throng, I found that I could fit in just fine. The pit at SOMA was built around conquest rather than finesse. Sure, folks were enjoying themselves but the goals were dominance and aggression, not really the stuff you see on Glee.

Throwing elbows and shoulders around, shoving bodies out of a circle -- an eight-year-old on the playground could do the same. This was not an elevated art form; this was more of a drawn out, musical scuffle. A visceral ritual of conquest and defeat. But at 16 it made a lot of sense to me, at least a lot more sense than dancing. In a fight, the stakes are obvious. There's a clear winner and loser. There's very little subtlety involved: the bigger and stronger one usually wins. Again, I'm not talking about Mohammed Ali here, I'm talking about the teenage angst of a suburban 18-year-old during a Pennywise song. I'm talking about the playground bully working his troubled home-life out on the rest of the awkward, acne-ridden youth around him.

Yes, it's a dog-eat-dog world, and dogs don't dance. In fact, most of the creatures here on the planet can fight, very few can dance. We humans have the rare honor of rising above the fight of natural selection and choosing to seek a higher good than mere survival. I could choose joy instead of the fight. Unfortunately, the fight still seems to be the rut that I (and the rest of the human race) fall into. It's sad but true. We struggle better than we salsa. The habit of the fight seems easy to explain: Dominance is easier to achieve than friendship; consumption is easier than love; and objectification is easier than empathy. Certainly, I desire to enter into the dance of happiness and joy. But, all too often I'm distracted by the fight: sidelined by the little battles along the way.

My pattern of thought goes something like this: I begin by looking for the joy, something that will move me -- let's call it the dance. I search for it everywhere. I begin to see success as desirable. Yes, success might even give me some form of joy, so I begin to look for victory. I fight for it, I struggle for it. And somewhere along the line I get so caught up in the competition that I forget my initial goal of happiness. At this point I am so focused on the immediate victory that I ignore the joy that I initially desired. In fact, happiness could be within my grasp but I would never see it. I am led blindly forward in my absurd pursuit of victory, the very victory which will no longer give me joy. Needlessly fighting when the joy of the dance is within my reach.

My wife is much better at dancing. She rolls with the punches that life throws her way. She dances her way through. When a predicament arises, she is light on her feet. She laughs and she waltzes through it. She makes light of the situation. On the other hand, I tend to make the situation heavy. I slam my full weight into the "problem" and try to fix it. Rain? A flat tire? A last-minute guest? My wife sees each hurdle as a riddle, a brainteaser of sorts -- a dancing partner rather than an opponent. She empathizes and tries to find peace in the moment. She looks for the joy in the situation. I tend to single out my objectives and attack. I face each setback as a combatant and try to obliterate my foe.

I think back on some of the arguments we've have had over the years. There have been so many times where a few dance steps could have saved the evening. After all, my wife and I are struggling for the same thing. A happy home, a strong marriage, an abundant life filled with joy and purpose. We are both fighting to achieve the exact same goals. In fact there are innumerably more similarities between us than there are contradictions. Why not approach these differences as a dance rather than a struggle? After all, my fighting stance probably only leads me further from the peaceful afternoon I was hoping for. In almost every situation, the fight to win these little battles of mine usually only impairs my ability to achieve my larger goals. A few dance steps could keep things light.

But alas, I cannot dance. When I dance I make funny faces. I struggle. I push. I fight. I have an easier time fighting than dancing. And maybe I'm not the only suburbanite American man that has a hard time with this -- maybe our nation in general has a hard time dancing. It's just a hunch, but I'm pretty sure Walmart sells more gun-racks than dancing shoes. That's right, we might be winners or losers, but we are certainly not dancers. In sports, in the corporate ladder, even in every Hollywood action movie, the goal is dominance. Not necessarily joy or happiness. And definitely not the dance. We might even have a hard time enjoying ourselves in a world where no one wins or loses. Fútbol is a great example. In the U.S., we view 90 minutes of scoreless soccer as an insult to the spectator, about as exciting as a catnap competition. However, the rest of the world sees the beautiful game as a dance with incredible displays of athleticism and finesse. "Zero to zero? Really?!" We shake our heads. What's the point? Why bother? We want a winner and a loser, not a tie.

It might sound absurd, but there have been crucial moments of my life where I would have preferred an insignificant victory or defeat over true happiness. In these regrettable instances I'd prefer to be darn-right rather than enter into the give-and-take of the dance: I'd rather fight than be happy. It's a ridiculous way to live, but this sort of dogma makes for great advertisements. "Never settle." "Have it your way." "Accept no substitute." I saw a car commercial yesterday that said, "We don't compromise." It's a mindless slogan that looks great on a bumper sticker, but has no meaning in the real world. Compromise is absolutely essential in all of life. Every car sold is a composite of compromise, a give-and-take with gravity, inertia, the cost of materials, and the varying sizes and tastes of the human consumer. At the very least, we all hope the dealer compromises a bit on the price when he sells us the vehicle. Compromise is the dance of any friendship or creative endeavor.

Of course I'm talking about a deeper dance than negotiating a good deal on a car -- an understanding of joy that doesn't depends on circumstance. Anyone can dance when everything is going their way, but there are those who find joy and meaning even when things are going horribly wrong. I'm talking about a dance that exists in the bad times. How can Viktor Frankl and Corrie ten Boom speak of joy and meaning against the backdrop of Nazi terror? How can they say that contentment can be found almost anywhere? Why is it that the poor are almost always more giving than the rich?

Yes, momentary happiness might be found on a championship ring or a gold record: a desired victory finally achieved. But this momentary happiness rarely lifts me as high as the depths of defeat bring me down. Maybe joy is found in the constants, not in the transients. Perhaps joy is a choice, not a result. Our hopes and fears are the past tense versions of our successes and failures. These wash over us like waves: they come and go. But this deeper joy could be the rock that remains unmoved.

We want our lives to count, that there would be value in our life and death. We search the world around us for happiness and meaning. We see beauty and worth and we try to affiliate our existence with these meaningful objectives. We attach ourselves to that which we believe holds the highest value: to objects and persons of worth, to the victory itself. We fight. We strive. We struggle for physical pleasure, financial security, respect, relationships, or other victories to give us success. But these smaller pursuits sideline the primary desire: joy. We chase these miniscule dreams around us to the detriment of the larger goal: a life worth living.

Yes, dancing is absurd. There is no logical reason to dance. It's awkward, especially for folks like myself. Dancing won't end global poverty. It doesn't stabilize the price of oil or fight to dethrone evil dictators. But does dancing bring you joy? Does dancing remind you of your humanity? Does dancing makes you laugh? Heck, my dancing in particular can certainly lighten the mood. I'm tired of fighting my way through life; I want to dance. To head back out on the dance floor of life armed with my four ridiculous dance faces and the intention of finding joy in the journey, finding happiness in the song along the way. Certainly, there are times to fight. There are times to challenge injustice, hatred, racism, and corruption. But most of life is not meant to be a fight. It's meant to be a dance. Victories and defeats will come and go but the joy of the dance is always available.