Joy || Labyrinth

feeling bad together feels good

August Luhrs

Illustration by Omar Hernández

“I like the distinction between happiness and joy. I like joy, like you, because I think joy is an active passion. It’s not a stagnant state of being. It’s not satisfaction with things as they are. It’s part of feeling power’s capacities growing in you and growing in the people around you. It’s a feeling, a passion, that comes from a process of transformation. And it’s a process of growth… You feel that you have the power to change and you feel yourself changing with what you’re doing, together with other people. It’s not a form of acquiescence to what exists.”
— Silvia Federici 

Biggest achievement of last year? Tearing my Achilles tendon. I showed up to that soccer field on the last 70 degree day of the fall, and I left with a strange sense of pride, a doctor’s appointment in my Google Calendar, a White Claw I was using as an ice-pack, and some crutches a very nice Instacart driver delivered straight to the park bench I was marooned on. For months, Dave had been inviting me to ITP soccer scrimmages, and for months, I gave him excuses. I wanted to go; I did. See, the problem is — what I want and what my brain wants are often at odds these days.

This year my depression and social anxiety got to some pretty *fun* new levels, and for the first time, I wasn’t allowed to eat grapefruit1. Taking anti-anxiety medication has 1000% helped me, but unfortunately there isn’t a pill that gets me out of my house and to a soccer match full of strangers2. So actually showing up on that fateful November afternoon? Huge win.

Tearing my Achilles meant that I had actually left my house. Great success, even if accompanied by learning what it sounds like to have a tendon snap and roll up my calf like a retractable projector screen3. I told my therapist that I considered the tear to be a symptom of my anxiety and depression, because if I had been exercising all year as actively as I had wanted to, my frail body would have been able to handle sprinting for 15 minutes.

But I digress. The point is — I struggled to exit the prison of my own mind. I finally emerged in a glade of fresh autumn air and park turf, and even though I managed to step in a bear trap, the real cheese at the end of the maze was the friends I made along the way (? ¿What?). I’m getting lost. Let’s try this again.

Grapefruit juice has some mysterious collabs with medication, in my case, Lexapro and Klonopin. It “binds to an enzyme in your intestinal tract known as CYP3A4, which reduces the absorption of certain medications.”

2 Well, there’s Adderall, which I also take, but I’m not trying to rail some addy just so I can go play footy. I save that for my semi-annual durational performance art piece where I pretend I’m a crypto-trading yuppie. And for writing Adjacent articles.

3 A thwap, surprisingly bass-y

I’ve struggled a lot to write this essay. Turns out — who knew? — it’s hard to write about joy when you’re super depressed. This month has been… very bad. The old voices clutched at me from the whirlpool; Death taunted me from the bank of her cool river; I played 130+ hours of Civilization VI. There’s an image that I have of myself, one that I see when I’m at my lowest lows, where I’m in the middle of a hedge maze, a labyrinth, and no one can find their way to me. The coloring of this image fluctuates — why would anyone bother trying? People are trying to get in, but I’m watering the hedges; I’m trying to get out, but trauma vines block the paths and my machete is dull4 — but regardless, I’m in there. I understand now that what grows in the labyrinth is shame.

Brené Brown defines shame as “feeling flawed and unworthy of love, belonging, and connection”. I know that when I go deep enough inside all my thoughts, defense mechanisms, goals, attachment anxiety, all that’s there is a fear that I am unworthy of connection. And I’m unlovable. Who knows why5, but that’s the lot I drew. At least I’m lucky enough to know my core drive (use my art, my work, my life to foster connection, joy, and community) and core fear (I will never find those things myself). When I’m feeling capable enough, I do a morning ritual that includes the mantra, “Today I raze the labyrinth and host a potluck in its garden of ashes”. That’s the dream. A potluck.

4 and flaccid?

5 I do, it’s because I’m a child of divorce that found security by getting really into Jesus as a kid, but then my friend got cancer and died when we were 15, so fuck God, but also RIP that innate, constant sense of connection and worth.

My biggest obstacle is my self — well, my thoughts, the bureaucratic military wing of my self — and thoughts are both what gets in my way and what gets me to do the things that are good for Me6. I’ve been trying to boycott my brain the past few years, but trying means thinking and… I’m sure there’s a Zen koan somewhere about not being able to grasp the fist with its hand7. The only thing in the way of me and other people is my mind. Like Luigi inside the mansion, I am isolated and fighting illusions. The illusions are strong because I have worked hard to make them strong. Thinking gives me a semblance of control. I think because I think that if I can control every outcome, analyze the best path forward, then I won’t get hurt again.

As always, within the individual we find the universal, and I know I’m not alone here. Thought worked for us a while, but things have gotten a little out of hand the past 300,000 years and this tool is starting to act up8. Our glorified, electric meatball brains have gotten too good at manipulating and being manipulated by the true evolutionary-survival MVP, our social groups. If we are to not just survive, but thrive, as a species, then we need to figure out how to make the self-brain play nice with the group-mind.

We’re special, but not that special. If we want to understand our brains and social groups a bit better, all we need to do is look at our animal brothers and sisters9 and their stupid little meatball brains. To find animals that have brains relatively similar to our own, we needn’t limit ourselves to our nearest ancestors, primates, but can use the handy metric of brain-body mass ratio. More specifically, we can use the encephalization quotient (the ratio of actual brain size to expected brain size based on body size) and its positive association with forebrain neuron count10 to find a group of animals that share the distinction of being the most intelligent species in their respective taxonomic groups. It’s a fun club to be in, a real “Earth’s greatest hits”. Besides ourselves, most highly-encephalized animals are those that you think of when you think
“smart lil guy” — dolphins, octopi, elephants, corvids, mice, chimpanzees, among others11.

Now that we have some animals that we can look to as our brain-cousins, which evolved social habits and traits should we study to see the best reflection of ourselves? Play? Tool usage? War, sadism, and murder? No, to see how their social neural circuits most closely resemble our own and to get a hint as to how we can harness the evolutionary roots of our social groups, there’s no behavior that’s better to examine than how these animals mourn.

6 Note the “me” vs “Me” distinction. Little me is driven by food, sleep, little little me, entertainment, etc. Big Me is driven by connection, passion, fulfillment, purpose.

7 “What is the sound of one hand fisting?”

8 Beesechurger

9 And siblings — shout out to the non-binary animal icon, the capybara.

10 Big brain in small body good, more electric meat in the front good.

11 No nerd graph is going to change my mind that dogs aren’t on this list. They have no thoughts, their sweet heads are empty, unburdened by the suffering of knowing. Cats, on the other hand, have too many thoughts, and it’s best not to look too closely into what they might be thinking, lest we find out.

Death is what gives our lives meaning, and how we respond to death socially is what defines us as people. Grief is inevitable and universal. It’s the personal experience of loss and how we attempt to adapt to a world without. How we mourn tells us so much about our societal values and hints at why mourning is an adaptation that evolves independently across the animal kingdom12. Mourning is wearing black, it’s showing up with food, it’s wailing and singing and sitting shiva, it’s washing the body, it’s burying and burning and painting with honey, it’s grieving — together. In highly-encephalized animals, it’s the “together” that’s the key.

Grief in companion animals is so well documented that the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals urges pet owners to not hide deaths from other animals in the house, as cats, dogs, and horses who see the deceased body of an animal they knew can adjust much better and spend less time searching and grieving than pets who have not seen their companion’s remains.

African elephants have been known to regularly visit the bones and tusks of their deceased family members. They have been seen gathering around the body of a recently-deceased herd member and gently touching the body with their trunks and feet, often standing vigil for days. Sometimes they will put food in the mouth of the deceased, pack its wounds with mud, and bury it under vegetation. One mother was even observed to stand beside her stillborn baby for three days, seemingly suffering from acute grief.

Bottlenose dolphins are known to have more advanced emotion processing centers in their brains due to the presence of specialized spindle neurons, which, in humans and mice, have been found to be closely associated with adaptive prosocial behaviors. Dolphins have very complex reactions to the death of their pod-mates. One account tells of a mother dolphin whose child died in a sudden attack raising the body of the child up to the surface in an attempt to get it to breathe, repeatedly calling to it, and not separating from it for days13. Another account tells of a pod of dolphins responding to a young calf suffering from severe exposure to pollution — they appeared stressed, swimming erratically, attempting to help the dying animal stay afloat, but once the child had finally died, they immediately left the area, as if they had prepared themselves by keeping it company and offering whatever support they could.

As for non-human primates, let’s look at an account of a peaceful death in a chimpanzee family living in a safari park. When the elderly female, Pansy, was near her end, three other adults — Blossom, Rosie (Pansy’s daughter), and Chippie (Blossom’s son) — groomed her and nested near her instead of their usual night area platforms. By then she rarely left her nest, which had been made by Blossom, perhaps suggesting care and anticipatory grief. In the ten minutes preceding Pansy’s death, the others groomed or caressed her 11 times (more frequently than normal), although none groomed her after her death. When she died, the others appeared to test for signs of life by closely inspecting her mouth and manipulating her limbs. Shortly thereafter, Chippie attacked Pansy, possibly attempting to rouse or resuscitate her, or perhaps to express anger or frustration14. Pansy’s daughter, Rosie, remained near the corpse throughout the night as if in vigil, while Blossom groomed Chippie for an extraordinary amount of time (suggesting consolation, social support). All three chimpanzees changed posture during the night at abnormally high rates, reflecting disturbed sleep. The next morning, they cleaned Pansy by removing straw from the body, and for five consecutive nights, no chimpanzee nested on the platform where Pansy died, even though this platform had been used extremely frequently before. Finally, for weeks post-death, the survivors remained lethargic, quiet, and ate less than normal.

12 Like crabs. The only two guarantees in evolution are death and crabs.

13 Liek this if you cri evryteim

14 Male chimps will literally attack a corpse rather than go to therapy, smh

Why have I spent all this time talking about animal grief when this essay was supposed to be about collective joy? I’ll let poet Ross Gay explain:

What happens if joy is not separate from pain? What if joy and pain are fundamentally tangled up with one another? Or even more to the point, what if joy is not only entangled with pain, or suffering, or sorrow, but is also what emerges from how we care for each other through those things? What if joy, instead of refuge or relief from heartbreak, is what effloresces from us as we help each other carry our heartbreaks?...

My hunch is that joy is an ember for or precursor to wild and unpredictable and transgressive and unboundaried solidarity. And that that solidarity might incite further joy. Which might incite further solidarity. And on and on. My hunch is that joy, emerging from our common sorrow—which does not necessarily mean we have the same sorrows, but that we, in common, sorrow—might draw us together. 

Joy and sorrow are not rivals. They are both pathways out of the labyrinth. Pathways toward other people.

Joy and sorrow are not rivals. They are both pathways out of the labyrinth. Pathways toward other people. Zadie Smith writes in her essay “Joy” that it is “that strange admixture of terror, pain, and delight” — the feeling of genuine joy inexorable from tragedy, the inevitability of loss — and that mourning “hurts just as much as it’s worth”. Mourning, and other experiences of collective pain, is sharing a tragedy. It’s people steeping themselves in the same boiling pot of misery, but finding some relief in what bubbles up between them.

We have traditions surrounding death across all cultures because of how integral the group processing of grief is to the wellbeing of everyone still alive. But there’s something deeper happening there as well, something about the relationship of the depths of pain and the upper bounds of our pleasure. In the individual, I believe our capacity for gratitude, love, and compassion is directly informed by how we’ve experienced suffering. As Khalil Gibran writes in The Prophet, “The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain. Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter’s oven? And is not the lute that soothes your spirit, the very wood that was hollowed with knives?” I don’t believe everything happens for a reason15, at least not in the way that misguided funeral attendees dribble the platitude16. There’s always a good side to bad things, but sometimes suffering is just suffering. Sorrow is not good because it leads to joy. Sorrow is. Joy is. Yes, yes, it is in the rank and dark compost that the seed bursts into life, whatever.  But maybe there’s something to that, to the idea that this whole miserable crucible we call “waking up and existing in capitalism” has something playful and good woven into it. Looking up the definition of a labyrinth, I read that the maze of hedges is often “for the amusement of those who search for a way out”. Could I be in the labyrinth because it’s more *fun*, more interesting than the alternative17? Is this the cosmic deal I signed, like choosing my difficulty level when my soul logged on to this universe?

I think my personal experience of trying to get out of the labyrinth could be a microcosm of something… bigger. In the Advaita Vedanta school of Hinduism, existence is “non-dual” — everything is connected and one. Atman, the self experiencing reality (“people”), and Brahman, the infinite, ultimate reality (“God”) are the same thing. Each individual is merely a facet of the same diamond, reflecting a different light of the universe. In The Book, Alan Watts explores this concept via game:

God also likes to play hide-and-seek, but because there is nothing outside God, he has no one but himself to play with. But he gets over this difficulty by pretending that he is not himself… He pretends that he is you and I and all the people in the world, all the animals, all the plants, all the rocks, and all the stars… But when the game has gone on long enough, all of us will wake up, stop pretending, and remember that we are one single Self—the God who is all that there is and who lives for ever and ever.

Maybe life is a game, and joy and sorrow are the mechanics that were designed to remind us who we really are. That we really are We. Maybe humanity has been in the labyrinth for 300,000 years and it’s time we realize what we’re actually stumbling around looking for: how to get out.

15  Unless the reason is entropy

16 “God’s plan?” God needs to stick to the engineering and get a fucking PM.

17 In high school we all went to a corn maze and my friend got so drunk he literally got lost and we couldn't find him and his phone was dead and the maze closed so we left and went to Taco Bell and when we walked in he was sitting there eating a fucking chalupa.

I believe interactive art has this power. In my game design classes, I stress that a good game is a machine that takes in a person and spits out a different person. The magic circle18 of a game or piece of interactive art is so transformative because participant feelings and approaches can trickle out into their actual lives. I went to ITP because I believe when you allow people to change art, the art changes them. It’s agency practice. There’s no one that understands this better than play prophet Bernie DeKoven. He made it his life’s mission to use games as a trojan horse for connection, expression, and shared power. In his posthumous book, The Infinite Playground, he talks about two concepts he calls “coliberation” and “Big WE”. He takes Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow — when an individual is in that delicious sweet spot where they’re engaged in an activity that is just challenging enough to be interesting but still easy enough that they don’t get too frustrated — and asks, what is that like in community? What is communal flow?

18  Magic circles are the ritual framing of an “artificial” experience that allows for participants to engage with different rules than exist in the “real world”.

“[Coliberation is] a shared transcendence of personal limitations, of our understanding of our own capabilities; a sudden, momentary transformation of our awareness of the connections between ourselves, each other, and the world we find each other in… Coliberation is not the opposite of codependence. Coliberation is why we become that way. Why we seek each other out in the first place… [It is] when we actually experience ourselves sharing in something bigger than any one who is present. This is what I call the experience of the “Big WE”. It’s a corollary to the “Big ME” experience of self-transcendence… It’s a collective consciousness of which we may be only dimly aware and yet completely embraced by, identified by and with. And when this WE is so engaged as to form a solidarity, a oneness, and when the will of the one is one with the will of the many, it becomes transformed, and we with it… Coliberation is what happens when you are fully engaged, yourself, in a community, actual and imagined, that is fully engaged. When you are so much part of the team that you are more fully yourself than you can be alone.”

I believe this idea of coliberation is the only path to our species’ flourishing in these dark years and those to come. Reflecting on the Silvia Federici quote that started this essay, it is only through radical joy that we can grow in power together, and it is often only through collective pain that we find that solidarity. Otherwise, what’s the point? Of anything?

It is only through radical joy that we can grow in power together, and it is often only through collective pain that we find that solidarity.

As with joy and sorrow, Coliberation brings us somewhere by leaning into its opposite. What is it about community that creates the substrate needed for the flourishing of the self, something so defined by and constrained within biology? It can be demoralizing to think too much19 about evolution, genes, our brains, why we do the things we do, why we want the things we do. Do I only care about joy because of my trauma? Is my life goal worth less if it’s a defense mechanism? Are any life goals not defense mechanisms? Does anything matter if we’re just these meatball-robots programmed to seek out behaviors that release chemicals in our brains that get us to seek out other behaviors? I’d argue nothing matters — if you do it in isolation. The only things that matter, that mean anything, are the things we do together. It is only in community or drawing upon others that we find scientific advances, great works of art, activist movements — the things that actually change the world for the better.

It’s tempting to think that the things I want to do for myself are, in fact, what I want. But they’re not. The stuff that matters to the self is just gene survival bullshit20.  I can only be me outside of myself. I’m only my fully realized, final Pokémon evolution self when I’m in community. Unlike happiness or pleasure, joy cannot be experienced alone. When I think about the times in my life where I felt pure Joy —  there’s always other people there. There’s always a sense in those moments that I could do anything — because of the people I was doing it with. It is only within Big We that we become the most fully actualized versions of our individual selves21.

There are already many people using these concepts of interconnectedness and looking to nature for the path forward for humanity. adrienne maree brown writes in her book Emergent Strategy:

“Emergence is the way complex systems and patterns arise out of a multiplicity of relatively simple interactions. It is another way of speaking about the connective tissue of all that exists—the way, the Tao, the force, change, God/dess, life. Birds flocking, cells splitting, fungi whispering underground. Emergence emphasizes critical connections over critical mass, building authentic relationships, listening with all the senses of the body and mind… Natural selection isn’t individual, but mutual—that species only survive if they learn to be in community… Emergence shows us that adaptation and evolution depend more on critical, deep, and authentic connections, a thread that can be tugged on for support and resilience. The quality of connection between the nodes in the patterns. Dare I say love. And we know how to connect—we long for it.”

We don’t have to try and get the whole world to experience joy with us. It’s more sustainable and effective to simply try and deepen our relationships to the people around us, deepen our relationships with ourselves. We do that through joy22.

I don’t always want to leave my house and go play soccer. I don’t always want to leave the comfort of the labyrinth. I don’t always want to live. But when I’m in community — sharing art, sharing food, sharing pain — I remember. I remember why I live, what it means to live. What I am capable of, and by extension, what we are capable of. I remember how lucky I am to feel so shitty, to have people to feel shitty with. How lucky I am to have bloomed into this fragile meat sack made of stars, how lucky to be on this giant, dying, space rock — because that’s where everyone else is. And we can do some wild shit together

19 Full stop

20 But shout out to self-care, in which fulfilling the needs of ourselves helps us ensure we have the capacity to do the same for others.

21 Hmu if you want to start a cult

22 And food, aka joy made flesh. Hmu if you want to come to the potluck!


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August Luhrs (they/he) is currently an assistant professor of Emerging Media and Technology at the Collaborative Arts program at Tisch, where they teach classes on Unreal Engine, TouchDesigner, and “Experiments in Collective Joy”. Previously they were an engineer at Magic Leap and they’ve had residencies at Snapchat and ITP. Their work has taken the form of board games, interactive installations, escape rooms, immersive theater, AR games, a TTRPG, a Burning Man theme camp, various types of performance, and more — all led by the belief that coming together and experiencing joy generates radical power.