I’ve always found truth in the saying, “If you want to know the end, then look at the beginning.” As of late, I’ve done a wealth of unpacking the last 26 years of my adult life. When I think back on the young person I was at age 20 in 1994, I’m encouraged by the personal development work that I’ve managed to accomplish in better understanding who I really truly am at my core.
When I think about joy and how it usually manifests for me, I can’t help but to think back to my childhood and the ever-present staple that was always there, in the form of Black soul music. There are songs I can hear to this day—like “Sir Duke” by Stevie Wonder from his 1976 magnum opus, Songs in the Key of Life—that always evoke feelings of happiness and pure joy. Hearing music from that golden age of soul is always effective when it comes to shifting my mood(s). Albums released in the late 1970s and early 1980s by Rufus & Chaka Khan; Earth, Wind & Fire; Deniece Williams; the Emotions; the Jones Girls; and Aretha Franklin are forever ingrained in my memory, thanks to my parents and how soul music was religion at home.
My relationship with joy, however, has been anything but a straight line. After years of self-work and reflection, I now realize that for the majority of my adolescent and young adult life, I was operating at a very low vibration. My late teens were marked by internal emotional struggles, body-image issues, and general depressive moods. Anything resembling joy back then was almost always connected to music (i.e., a new album release from a favorite artist or concerts I attended) or vacations taken with my mother and other family and friends. Back then, anything joyful was fleeting, at best.
Throughout much of my young adulthood, my perception and view of love and romance mirrored that of joy—I knew it when I saw it, I could celebrate it for others, but somehow I had allowed myself to believe it was not possible for me. So, I accepted that fact and pressed on with life, learning over time to brace for the inevitable blows to come and to never get too used to things going well. Simply put, I had become functionally dysfunctional.
A Diagnosis—and a Shift in My Perspective
When HIV entered the picture in 2004, it served to deepen every single negative thought, emotion, and fear that I’d already had for years prior. Acceptance of my diagnosis and the subsequent adjustments made an already heavy situation feel even more weighted.
Over time, however, something else happened. I came to realize that my “biggest fear” at that time—contracting HIV—had already happened, and yet I was still standing. With that realization came a shift in my perspective. Reading the Conversations With God series of books by Neale Donald Walsch and just about anything written by Iyanla Vanzant helped in facilitating a major shift in my outlook and in my thinking overall. As I continued to do more self-work, while applying much of what I was digesting, I gained more clarity about the emotional loop I’d always found myself in.
As more dots began to connect, my thought process continued to shift and an awakening started. Up until that pivotal turning point in my mid-30s, I had felt powerless in my attempts to get a solid grasp on anything even remotely resembling joy. In hindsight, I can see how all of the challenges I faced from age 17 until about 35—coming to grips with my sexuality, low self-esteem, body dysmorphia, depression, coming of age, and then HIV—left little room for anything else, except survival. This realization was a sobering one, as it revealed to me how I had (in my own way) replicated the experiences I saw growing up and, in essence, did what many Black people have done for ages—survive by any means necessary.
It wasn’t until a permanent shift in my consciousness happened that my mind became open to a more healthy and holistic way of thinking, which then gave way to a new belief and idea about the need to feel and experience joy. Slowly, I was starting to believe I was worthy.
A Human Feeling We Are All Deserving Of
Joy is born of freedom, self-expression, and many other things I unintentionally denied myself in my earlier years, along the road to finding my way in this world. I can now see how all of this was part of the master plan, though it meant spending a significant number of years “in the dark,” so to speak, absent of a natural, human feeling and experience that we are all deserving of.
As a Black gay man, a person living with HIV, and an artist, I’ve worked long and hard in making visibility and authenticity the cornerstones of how I live my life. Now at age 46, peace, lightness, and comfort are all part of what I aim to feel as much and as often as humanly possible. Allowing myself to experience the gift of joy—even in the smallest of ways—is vital and revolutionary. After more than a year of living through this pandemic, experiencing joy is even more important than ever. In fact, it’s been in response to much of the pandemic drama that I’ve become more intentional and insistent about the simpler ways that I’m able to experience joy.
These days, joy shows up for me in myriad ways: through the artistic work that I create and present; working out while happily getting lost in some of my favorite upbeat music; spending time with my chosen family and friends; cooking, baking, and trying out new recipes; and of course eating—which would bring any true foodie such as myself joy. All of the daily routine things I’ve incorporated, in addition to traveling and discovering new places, are examples of activities that keep my mental and emotional vibrations elevated.
Lastly, all things soul music will always bring me joy—collecting vinyl albums is one of the pastimes that always leaves me feeling sublime. As a child, I may not have known what those songs meant in a literal sense, but I was always able to connect with the energy and spirit of music, which always left me feeling jubilant. Because of what it all represents and how at peace the music always makes me feel, soul music—and the nostalgia it evokes for me now—is a constant source of joy.