What being stuck in the NYC blackout taught me about happiness

I was mid-bite, mouth wide open, trying to make my way through a slice of New York pizza the size of home plate, when the pizza joint went dark.

“Hmmm, they’ll just flip the circuit breaker,” I thought, and kept eating. Nobody paid it that much attention. It was New York, after all.

I had a ticket to a great show that I’d bought very last minute so I finished my slice in the dark and headed down 45th Street to the Theatre District, where I waited for the doors to open. And waited. And waited, alongside families from Canada and Long Island and across the world who paid top dollar for their tickets and may have bought them months ago for a big Saturday night out.

As the doors continued to stay closed past the 8:00 curtain time, the sidewalks and streets around the theaters filled up and something started feeling very different. The traffic lights were out, and cars snaked through the streets. Police and fire engine sirens wailed non-stop. The mass of people outside the theaters continued to build.

Waiting for the doors to open (they didn’t)

Waiting for the doors to open (they didn’t)

Finally, a murmur went through the crowd: All shows cancelled. People moved away from the theaters and down the street, heads down. It was as quiet as a jam packed Times Square will ever get.

I was staying in an apartment about a mile away and the sky was darkening, so as the novelty of taking pictures and videos of a mostly dark West Side wore out, I headed back to the apartment and sweated my way up 23 flours so I could be inside before it got pitch black outside.

The apartment was eerily silent and devoid of energy. No fluorescent lights on microwaves or cable boxes, no LED displays on alarm clocks, no refrigerator hum, certainly no TV to turn on or music to play. I couldn’t open Spotify because I only had half a battery left on my phone and had no idea how long the power would be out. I texted my wife every once in a while to let her know I was alive but otherwise shut down my devices.

It got darker. And quieter. A quiet you could hear. More quiet than I’d heard in a long time.

It made me think of a question John Amaechi has asked. John was the first former NBA player to come out as gay, and an amazing speaker and thought leader. My sister has seen him speak and told me about one memorable speech, when he was talking about being a young man in distress over identity and relationships. The question:

What do you see when you’re alone in the dark?

Think about it. What does it feel like to be in a place of complete stillness, to have your mind be totally clear, to feel the absence of distraction, and to focus on yourself. 

What does it tell you about you, your world, how you interact with the world? What can you learn from this uniquely weird and special experience?

Think about it.

Eventually the power came on and when I looked at the blinking clock I realized I had fallen asleep an hour earlier than normal.  I don’t think it was because I was super tired. I think it was because I was super at peace. Without the artificial hum I only had my body to tune in to and I was filled with notions of creative possibility and what could be. 

I was woken up partially by the one small light I’d left on, but mostly by a giant Whiirrrr of  lights and electronics turning on at once in the general vicinity of my building. It jolted me out of my sleep.

While having power meant I’d be able to call my wife, write this post, and listen to some good music, it also bummed me out. I missed that feeling, that focus, that clearing of my head, what it felt like without the pulsing external energy, having the possibility to look inward to consider what’s possible. It felt pretty great.

The challenge now is how to recapture that feeling. Well, the newscasts reporting the blackout are talking about the possibility of more. I didn’t have any plans to go back to New York, but I might start checking into flights.

Is it possible to only do things that bring you joy?

In this ever-increasingly fractionalized and polarized world, joy is popping up as an antidote everywhere you turn. See the (debatably) magical Marie Kondo, for starters. It’s an amazing time to get your joy jam on and get the most out of every second you spend spinning on this giant rotating orb.

As someone who spent many years basing most of my decisions and actions on if they would bring me joy, I’ll tell you that it’s a spectacular, and extremely problematic, way to live.

About three years ago, my business was humming along and my dad was gently and honorably breathing his last breaths. His death made me think more deeply about my life. I decided to go away for a couple days and take stock of where I existed in the world.

I rented a little farmhouse Airbnb in Wisconsin and walked the woods for a couple days. I created a list of things that brought me joy, and committed to do more of them. The result was immediate: a more fulfilled life, and a more depleted bank account. It was a tradeoff I was more than willing to make. I taught, learned, and mentored. I wrote a book. I taught and mentored some more. I spent more time with my family and walked my dog a lot, too. I was only doing things that brought me joy.  

happy dog 2.jpg

As you might imagine, most of that joyful activity was immensely emotionally rewarding. Financially? Not so much. The part of my business where people actually paid me shriveled. So I challenged myself to make more money. I got back to business and focused and hustled and righted the ship. But when that ship sailed, it left a lot of joy on the shore.

So what to do? I still wanted as much joy in my life as much as I could get. Where’s the balance?   The answer, of course, was on Facebook. 

I recently asked the question to my Facebook friends: Is it possible to only do things that bring you joy?  Not surprisingly, there were many No’s, with people recounting the menial tasks of life—laundry, dirty dishes, commuting, doctor appointments. Where’s the joy in that?

Ah, that’s where the Yes’s come in.

These were the people who acknowledge the dishes and traffic, but who also know that joy is something bigger than what we do. For example: “Yes, if one learns how to find joy in all things. In other words, the joy has to emanate from the doer, not the task.” And “Joy exists according to the person perceiving it.”

Experiencing joy is about how you see life, not what you have or do.

One person who had faced a serious sickness talked about how she sees life differently now. “I take joy in picking up my dog’s poop, because I still can, and while I’m still at it, I notice the fresh air, and some rabbit crossing the sidewalk, and a guy selling churros…and while I tie that stinky bag, I am joyful in being alive.”

Living a life full of joy doesn’t mean only doing joyful things. If you can find joy not in the things you do but in the way you are, you can find joy in anything. And you’ll be on your way to living a life full of joyful things.

Good luck. I’m going to walk my dog.