669: Blueberries for Cal

669: Blueberries for Cal

669: Blueberries for Cal


I’m Ada Limón and this is The Slowdown.

When I first started meditation, one of the concepts that I read about in Sharon Salzberg’s book Lovingkindness was called “Sympathetic Joy.” It’s known as mudita in the Pali language. Salzburg describes it as “the specific form of joy that comes from taking genuine delight in the happiness of others.” In an article from Tricycle Magazine she writes, “Among Buddhism’s Four Immeasurables of loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity, sympathetic joy can be the most difficult to develop.” I was blown away by this concept at first.

After years in New York, after years in the arts, it was easy for me to think that life was a competition. That you competed for the part, for the publication, for the partner, for the apartment, for the best dressed, for the best job. It wasn’t so much a choice as it was a given, hammered in. How could I be happy for someone else if they got everything I wanted? I’d see someone holding hands with their partner when I didn’t have one and feel physically ill sometimes. I’d hear about someone’s good news and I’d do my best to pretend I was happy. But deep down, something felt askew.

Then I learned about sympathetic joy and really worked with the idea that happiness was not limited. There was not a finite amount, in fact, happiness could beget more happiness! Happiness could be contagious, could be made to grow. It truly changed how I saw the world as an artist and as a human being. I’m not saying it doesn’t take work, and I’m not saying envy doesn’t poke its ugly head up now and again, but my understanding of sympathetic joy has fundamentally shifted how I appreciate other people’s joy.

Today’s poem is a breathtaking example of sympathetic joy, the complicated work of it, the way in which appreciating the joy of others, only highlights the joy you already have.

Blueberries for Cal
by Brenda Shaughnessy

Watching little Henry, six, scoop up blueberries
and shovel them into his mouth, possessed.

I’m so glad I brought blueberries—wish my kids
could/would eat them. Cal can’t; Simone won’t.

Henry’s sisters Lucy & Jane took turns feeding each
other goldfish crackers and sips of juice.

Arms around each other’s neck and back. Tiny things.
I wish my daughter had a sister like that

and my son a nervous system that let him walk
and munch berries. Sometimes I can’t bear

all the things Cal doesn’t get to do. I want to curse
everything I can’t give him.

Admire/compare/despair—that’s not the most real
feeling I’m feeling, is it? I feel joy in Henry’s joy.

Blueberries for the child who wants them.
There’s all this energetic sweetness, enough to go around,

to give and taste and trust. More than enough.
For Cal, too. I want to remember this.

My children seem to subsist on music and frosting.
Where there’s frosting, there’s cake.

Where there’s music, someone chose to make a song
over all other things on this earth.

"Blueberries for Cal" by Brenda Shaughnessy, from THE OCTOPUS MUSEUM copyright © 2021 Brenda Shaughnessy. Used by permission of Penguin Random House.