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MIT blogger CJ Q. '23

a season of secondhand joy by CJ Q. '23

on mudita and vicarious delight

hey. it’s christmas season in mit. i was never a big fan of christmas myself, nor do i really get the whole christmas spirit thing. but it just so happens that christmas coincides with the end of the fall semester, which is the second-best time of the semester.

mit has several a capella groups, and this time of the semester is when they all give their performances. i had already forgotten the joy of listening to live music. it’s the kind that makes me want to move my head to the music, to move my fingers to the beat, to run instead of walk. i went to maybe three or four shows this semester, and it’s so nice to just sit down next to friends and watch other friends sing nice songs. you’re not really interacting with each other—there’s no expectation to—but you’re friends, and so you’ve grown to enjoy each other’s presence without feeling the need to fill it with conversation.

i went to other performances this semester too. roadkill buffet held an improv comedy show, the musical theater guild ran a production of firebringer, and the video game orchestra had their fall concert. there’s really just that element to a live performance—maybe it’s knowing the people who are on stage—that brings me so much more joy.

when i think about it, it startles me how much performing arts there are in mit. so many of my friends had so many different performances, and i could not even go to all the ones i wanted to, like next sing or the shakespeare ensemble or the toons or asian dance troupe or tech twinkles. my friends all care about, and love, so many different ways of expression. and it’s nice having this bit of context i can share with my friends.

the thing about the end of the semester is that it’s only the second best time of the semester, as the best time of the semester is the beginning. the problem is that there are finals and final projects, and most classes will have one or the other, so everyone is busy in some way. on the other hand, it makes me feel warm inside to think about all the ways people support each other.

a very silly example is meal swipes, which is something you use to eat a meal at a dining hall. people who live in dorms with dining halls are required to purchase a certain number of meal swipes per semester. for many people, this number is too large. and so this time of the semester, it’s very common to just see people bringing all of their friends and friends’ friends to dining. sometimes, you even see people standing in front of the cashier, waiting to just tap anyone in.

food, in general, is a nice way to express care for someone else. there are student groups that give away hot chocolate and care packages. the house teams put up snacks in dorm lounges for people to take. friends bake nice things and feed other friends.

last night, at a party, we were going around in a circle answering the question, “if you could have one statistic displayed above everyone’s head that only you could see, what would it be?” and people’s answers pretty wholesome, ranging from things like how hungry that person is, or how busy that person is, or whether that person would appreciate a hug from them.

and, i don’t know. a cynical me would say that people are just saying that to be nice. but it’s been my experience that people care about each other. and, i don’t know. a lot of people have experienced this kind of caring with their families. i, personally, have seen this in the world outside mit. but it is in mit i have seen this care be so manifest, that it makes me wonder if this is what a “normal family” should be like.

the problem with the word love, or with joy, is that it feels too wide to describe the feeling i’m trying to convey. all of this is love, but in different ways. there is a passion for creation and expression, and of sharing that with others, and the joy felt of sharing an ecstatic experience with others. there is caring for how someone is doing, of measuring out empathy for people you don’t even know.

this feeling is a vicarious, secondhand joy. maybe it’s just that the antidepressants are working and that i don’t feel as sad anymore, but that’s the dominant feeling this past week or two. maybe not in the sense of feeling it the most, but of the feeling i remember the most. it’s an expansive, infectious delight, one that struck me so hard that i had to write this blog post to share it.

the word that i’ve found to come closest is mudita. i won’t say i’m very familiar with buddhism. but as i understand it, mudita is meant to be a virtue, as something to be cultivated. i think i struggle seeing mudita as something virtuous, but i can appreciate the desire to cultivate it.

practicing mudita day-to-day feels hard, and it is only when i began to pay attention to it over the last week that i understood how such a rare and fleeting feeling it is. despite that, i think i do want to try to cultivate this feeling. not for the sake of being virtuous, as if i feel it is “the right thing” to do. but because it just feels good, in a way that’s different from pleasure or general happiness.

so this is an attempt to do so, i guess. i hope that reading this blog post conveyed the joy i felt. i hope that you feel the same kind of joy too.