Collective Joy by Nancy Mugele



Photo credit — Geoffrey DeMeritt Photography

Although my word this past academic year at Kent School was BELIEVE, I have been thinking a lot lately about COLLECTIVE JOY. The term was coined a decade ago by author and columnist Barbara Ehrenreich who wrote Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy. In this scholarly history of dance, the author explores the human impulse to dance, and its seemingly constant suppression throughout history. (I always wanted to dance on Broadway, but that is another story.)

Ehrenreich writes about “the desire for collective joy, historically expressed in revels of feasting, costuming, and dancing.” Communal celebrations and mass festivities date to Medieval times and are central to Western tradition. In recent centuries, however, Ehrenreich asserts that the festive tradition has been repressed, but, she states, “the celebratory impulse is too deeply ingrained in human nature ever to be completely extinguished.”

I credit Ehrenreich with naming a condition that contains so much spirit and ability to inspire. In her definition, collective joy involves “music, synchronized movement, costumes, and a feeling of loss of self.” Brené Brown also wrote about collective joy, and collective pain, in her recent book Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone. Brown encourages us to share collective joy. “People with a sense of true belonging also spend time sharing emotional experiences with large and diverse groups—whether those groups are found at sporting events, live music, church services, or vigils,” writes Brown.

“The more we’re willing to seek out moments of collective joy and show up for experiences of collective pain— for real, in person, not online — the more difficult it becomes to deny our human connection, even with people we may disagree with.”

Collective pain struck last week as both Kate Spade, creator of iconic handbags and founder of her namesake company, as well as celebrity chef and CNN personality Anthony Bourdain took their own lives. The world was surprised and saddened. If you cannot find the joy in your life please find someone to share your struggle with. We all need each other to create collective joy. Share in it. Your happiness depends on it.

A research study in 2017 supports this. “Collective assemblies (like games, concerts, or plays) contribute to greater meaning, positive emotions, and social connection in our lives.”  Thankfully, collective joy abounds in our culture, and I had the pleasure to see it play out in all of its glory in three distinct ways within a 24 hour period last week.

Take the Washington Capitals. After over 40 years, and for the very first time, the franchise finally won the coveted Stanley Cup, ice hockey’s highest honor. Fans inside, and outside of, Verizon Center, dressed in head-to-toe red, demonstrated collective joy in a visible and tangible way. Strangers drawn together by a singular drive to witness their team reach the pinnacle of the sport. I watched the crowds in DC from the comfort of my couch, but I could not help grinning ear to ear as I watched the Caps revelers – one daughter included! Joy is contagious, and it certainly was that in DC well into the wee hours of the morning as we watched and cheered each player who hoisted The Cup.

The very morning after the Caps were triumphant, Kent School graduated the Class of 2018. Collective joy abounded in the M.V. “Mike” Williams Gymnasium as families and friends celebrated an incredible group of 8th Graders. The love in the gym was palpable, and the joy I saw mirrored in the faces of the graduates and their proud parents will not soon fade away from my memory. Collectively, and singularly, each and every guest at the event held hope for the bright future of our graduates — whether they belonged in their family or not. Collective joy, collective hope and collective love together in one room — a very powerful threesome.

Later that same evening I got updates, complete with photos and video, from CMA Fest in Nashville where my daughters were on the floor in the third row, dancing and singing with thousands of country music fans. (Yes, the Baltimore daughter, who was in DC for the Caps, got on a plane very early the next morning to get to Nashville for sisters’ weekend — planned well before the Caps made history.) A year ago, Jim and I attended CMA Fest with them, and I can tell you firsthand that the collective joy at a four-day country music festival is good for the soul!

So much collective joy in such a short period of time. And, Justify won the Triple Crown the day after all of the above. I am overjoyed!

Nancy Mugele is the Head of School at Kent School in Chestertown and a member of the Board of Horizons of Kent and Queen Anne’s.

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