This past weekend, just a few days before the release of Big Magic: Creativity Beyond Fear, Elizabeth Gilbert’s new ode to the creative spirit, I bumped into her in the restroom at Omega Institute, where she was speaking. As I was drying my hands, she caught a glimpse of the Anaïs Nin quote tattooed on my forearm. “Hold still,” she said. “I have to read that.” She then proceeded to show me her tattoos, done in white ink. One says “Courage,” one says “Compassion,” and a third one says “Stubborn Gladness.”
Later, in her talk, Gilbert revealed the source of that last one. It’s inspired by “A Brief for the Defense,” a poem by Gilbert’s “personal poet laureate” Jack Gilbert (no relation), about the imperative of appreciating joy and pleasure in even the harshest of times.
After the sometimes reclusive poet’s death in 2013, Gilbert wrote about him, and about how he inspired her, in The Atlantic.
When it comes to developing a worldview, we tend to face this false division: Either you are a realist who says the world is terrible, or a naïve optimist who says the world is wonderful and turns a blind eye. Gilbert takes this middle way, and I think it’s a far better way: he says the world is terrible and wonderful, and your obligation is to joy. That’s why the poem is called “A Brief for the Defense”—it’s defending joy. A real, mature, sincere joy—not a cheaply earned, ignorant joy. He’s not talking about building a fortress of pleasure against the assault of the world. He’s talking about the miraculousness of moments of wonder and how it seems to be worth it, after all. And one line from this poem is the most important piece of writing I’ve ever read for myself:
We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world.
This defines exactly what I want to strive to be–a person who holds onto “stubborn gladness,” even when we dwell in darkness. I want to be able to contain both of them within me at the same time, remain able to cultivate joy and wonder even at life’s bleakest.