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Joy Revisited

Our UVA spring looks much different than it did a year ago, but joy can still be found if we look hard enough. Jim Todd, Assistant Professor in the Woodrow Wilson Department of Politics in the College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences at the University of Virginia, shares his thoughtful perspective on the meaning of this season on Grounds.

Read Jim Todd’s piece, “Joy,” published in April 2019. Please share your thoughts below.

A year ago I wrote a piece for Thoughts from the Lawn entitled “Joy” in which I enthused about how wonderful it was to be on Grounds in the midst of yet another Charlottesville spring – and with the basketball team headed for the Final Four.  A year later, things look a lot different here, and I walk Grounds still resplendent with spring blossoms but almost totally without students, faculty, or staff. It is a lonely and sad experience. One of the reasons I am still teaching at the age of 76 is the joy I take in being in the classroom, interrelating with our wonderful undergraduate students, who, as I said last year, seem to get nicer every year. The classroom experience is for now on hold, with no one really sure as to when it will resume. Instead of looking around a room full of students, I find myself looking at myself on my computer screen as I record lecture after lecture, eager to get all my remaining lectures online, conscious of the fact that I am in the age group most vulnerable to the coronavirus.

Where is the joy in all this? Well, a student emailed me today to tell me she had just watched my first lecture in my civil liberties class and that “[t]he power of finding bits of joy in weird, horrible, scary, crazy times is remarkable, and it seems to me that you choose joy daily.” Her words made me rethink what joy is and how important it is in these difficult times to look for it wherever we can find it and share it with others. For me, that comes in having the opportunity to be more than a talking head, recording endless hours of lectures. It means the opportunity to take advantage of this moment to remind my students that life, glorious as it can be, is full of uncertainties, that in the last analysis, nothing is guaranteed. That is not an idea that comes easy to undergraduates, especially undergraduates in a wonderful place like UVA. From this lesson should follow the realization that there is a much greater need to be appreciative of the joy of life, of the joy of being young and smart, enrolled in a great university, surrounded by caring friends and faculty and staff, and living in a wonderful town set in the midst of some of the most beautiful countryside anywhere. That joy has been interrupted, but it is not gone forever.

I can also remind my students in those recorded lectures and in any conversations I have with them, that, despite the disruption, I am indeed still finding joy in life, joy in seeing their faces and hearing their thoughts as I held my first online seminar today, joy in playing the piano, hiking in the woods behind my townhouse, watching for favorite bird species returning from their winter sojourns in the far south, and marveling at the beauty of the cherry trees at their peak right now, the smell of daffodils and hyacinths, the beauty of the camellias I have been pilfering from the huge bushes behind the Jefferson Society for about 37 years. I find joy in the knowledge that no matter how dark and challenging the days ahead may be as the blossoms all fade, there will be another spring and life will be regenerated. Perhaps most meaningfully to me, I find joy in knowing that I am serving as something of an anchor to windward for my students, a reassuring presence in these turbulent times.

Well, what happens for my students if the virus claims me as one of its victims, which seems highly unlikely since I am alone almost ninety-nine percent of the time? They should find joy in the memory of all the fun we have had together, the learning experiences we have shared in classes and office hours (well, that last point may be a stretch, but we have had fun in office hours!), the fabulous life I have lived. Those memories, along with all the other joyful memories of their time here will be with them through their lives and bring smiles to their faces long after I and their youth and undergraduate years are gone. Joy is harder to find today than it was a year ago, that’s for sure, but it’s still there. You only have to take the time to look for it.