Joy as a Political Act / by Chris Duffy

I’ve grown up around terrorism. My dad worked in the World Trade Center for the bombing in 1993 and just barely missed the last train to make it into the twin towers on September 11. I remember that night in 1993, when Dad walked into our apartment, his face jet black with soot, his suit covered in ash. He looked so preposterous standing in the doorway, like an overdressed chimney sweep, that we burst into laughter as we ran to hug him. 

After I graduated college, I moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts. I taught fifth grade during the day and performed comedy at night. I was in Boston for the marathon bombings and I “sheltered in place” as we heard sirens in the street and helicopters overhead. It’s the only time I’ve ever felt brave to be eating an entire pot of spaghetti in my underwear.

These are the mile markers of my life. At the same time, I luckily didn’t lose anyone I loved. I can only imagine what that would be like. In fact, if anything, my experiences have made me more grateful for the time I have with family and friends and for how precious and fleeting life can be. But I’ve also had a number of opportunities to think about life and terror and violence and how I want to respond to it.

As a comedian, when terrible things happen in the world, sometimes my job feels irrelevant or even inappropriate. How can I go out and tell jokes when there’s blood on the ground? Ignoring such naked human suffering feels offensive. To try and make people laugh feels insane.

I’m not sure that words can do justice to the horror of people being killed in Paris (or Beirut or Nigeria or Boston or New York or anywhere else in the world). But I think one of the most important functions of art is to communicate what we can’t express otherwise. Art provides a way of dealing with the most powerful emotions and feelings. And the more that I think about and live through acts of terror the more that I think laughter and joy in their wake aren’t inappropriate, but necessary. In response to those who would create fear and terror, joy is a political act.

I think it’s only natural to feel fear and sadness after something terrible happens in the world. But I also find myself feeling guilty if I laugh or enjoy the sunshine or feel joyful. And that’s what I need to push back on in myself. Because if terrorism is “the use of violent acts to frighten the people in an area as a way of trying to achieve a political goal,” then joy is its opposite and its antidote.

Thomas Aquinas said that “joy is the noblest human act.” Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was a French philosopher, paleontologist, and Jesuit priest. He said that “joy is the most infallible sign of the presence of God.” Regardless of your religious beliefs, it’s clear that terrorism aspires to bring out the worst in us: fear, division, anger, and violence. There’s no stronger response than to refuse to give in. So don’t feel any guilt about smiling or dancing or throwing back your head in song. Tell a joke. Make someone laugh. Go see comedy or a play or a movie. Live your life. Experience joy as a political act, as a rebellion against violence and evil.

-Chris Duffy

Here are some works of art that make me feel joy when the world feels dark:

“It’s Going to Be Okay” by The Oatmeal

“The Summer Day” by Mary Oliver

John Oliver on The Paris Attacks

"Polka Dotted Joy" by Ingrid Fetell

“Hiroshima” by Sarah Kay

Between Heaven and Mirth by James Martin