Giraffe Juice: The Necessity of Joy

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A workshop participant once asked Marshall Rosenberg, “There’s so much pain and suffering in the world. Where do you find the energy to keep traveling and teaching?” In response, Marshall said with a characteristically wry smile, “It’s the ‘Giraffe juice’ that keeps me going.”

You probably know that Nonviolent Communication is affectionately called “Giraffe,” referring to the large hearts and sharp vision of these beautiful land mammals. You may have heard less about “Giraffe Juice.” Marshall talked a lot about the central role of joy in NVC and in life.

It’s easy to forget that one of the definitions of Nonviolent Communication is a process of focusing attention that makes it joyful to contribute to one another. It’s not just about conflict resolution. NVC is also a tool for exploring what it is to be human, and a method for bringing more joy and well-being to life.

As human beings, we need more than food, air, water and shelter.  In each of us lies a powerful need for the heart to be nourished. Just as a plant will wither without adequate water, so too our hearts can lose a certain quality of buoyancy and brightness without adequate nourishment.

To do any kind of work—and especially the work of service, healing, and social change—requires both internal and external resources. We need resilience to face pain. We need strength to persevere through challenge. And there’s nothing quite like joy to bring resilience and strength to the heart.

It takes practice to find the good, to let things in, and to remember joy. I have a dear friend and colleague with whom I take a walk through one of the local forests every few weeks. We always begin our walk by taking turns sharing “celebrations”—bits of our lives that are going well, small successes that we appreciate or want to celebrate. It’s a wonderful practice to train the attention to notice and drink in the good.


The Door to Joy
There are countless ways to access and experience joy. Yet all of them rest on one basic capacity: the ability to receive. To feel joy, we must be willing to let things in, to allow ourselves to be touched by life. (Even the joy we feel when giving depends on our ability to receive: the gratitude of another, the beauty of contributing, the simple kindness in our heart).

This receiving is characterized by qualities of openness and connection. It’s not so much something we do as something that happens naturally when we slow down and give ourselves time and space to be. Receiving is the quality that emerges when you stop and close your eyes to feel the sun on your face; it’s the inner quiet that comes as you lean in close to smell the fragrance of a flower; or the warm relaxation we experience when embracing a good friend.

How many gifts and moments of joy do we miss in life because we’re moving too quickly, too busy to actually receive and allow joy to arise? How often do we slow down long enough to receive the goodness of our lives?

The Gift of Needs
Allowing ourselves to give and receive is one of the most primary ways we can access joy. We can feel the simple nourishment of this mutuality when playing with a jubilant dog, petting a purring feline, or (as Marshall used to say) feeding a hungry duck!

Yet we can feel great reluctance to asking for what we need and allowing others to lend a hand. There even can be a numbness to knowing what we need in the first place! When we encounter others’ needs, we may experience feelings of obligation, suffocation, resentment or indifference.

All of this is tragically common, and due to how we’ve been socialized.

We may have had experiences along the way that taught us it can be dangerous, shameful, or futile to ask for what we need. We may have learned that giving is the only way to get our needs get met; that our self-worth is determined by what we can give, achieve or accomplish; or, that help from another can only come laced with hidden agendas and strings attached. This can leave us with complex and confusing relationships around our own and others’ needs.

Growing up, we are exposed to the powerful myths of white Western, culture: the myths of self-reliance, meritocracy and “rugged individualism.” These stories shape our experience. Needs become a liability and a weakness, rather than a natural expression of our humanity, or an innate gift we have to offer to one another. For years, I struggled with feeling overwhelmed whenever things got difficult (logistically or emotionally). It took great patience to learn again how to ask for help.

The irony is that self-sufficiency and individualism are at odds with the very reality of our existence! Infants literally cannot grow and thrive without loving touch and connection from adults. All through childhood and adolescence our nervous system continues grow through relational bonds with adults. We are social creatures, and depend on one another and the world around us for physical, if not emotional sustenance.

My heart breaks to see how our culture, society and upbringing twists and complicates our beautiful, natural impulses to give and receive. The good news is that one of the best antidotes to this whole mess is joy: the joy of receiving.

The Best Game in Town
Reflect for a moment on something you did or said recently that helped someone, not because you had to, but simply because you wanted to. It doesn’t need to be huge: a kind word or gesture, a smile or a hug. How did it feel to contribute freely and willingly to another?

That’s “Giraffe juice.”

And it goes both ways. When we reflect on how good it feels to give, we start to realize that it’s equally nourishing to receive. Inviting others to meet our needs and allowing them to give to us, we offer them that same good feeling of contributing. We give “the gift of our receiving,” as the song goes.

Giving and receiving is mutually beneficial. This reciprocal relationship happens to be the fundamental basis of the natural world. A few minutes of contemplating breathing in and breathing out reveals, in our own direct experience, how our very life is sustained by a process of giving and receiving.

Marshall called this the magic of making life wonderful, “the best game in town:” learning to think, listen and speak in ways that make it joyful to contribute to one another. And the path to this kind of mutuality depends on our ability to receive and feel joy.

The more we are able to let ourselves rest in the uplifting feeling of joy that comes from giving and receiving, the less willing we become to allow old habits of obligation and resentment, or the illusion of self-sufficiency to cover our hearts. The more we know the experience of joy, the more natural interest and energy we have to play the best game in town, the work of making life more wonderful.


Oren Jay Sofer is a Collaborative Trainer here at BayNVC, and teaches mindfulness and communication locally and nationally. He is a member of the Spirit Rock Teachers Council, a Certified Trainer of Nonviolent Communication, founder of Next Step Dharma and author of Say What You Mean: A Mindful Approach to Nonviolent Communication.

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