How I Find Joy—Even When Everything Sucks

Each week, writing about joy has become an active way for me to resist hate and find hope amid violence and oppression.
Writer Shireen Ahmed poses with a clear umbrella on a rainy day, smiling and dancing in the rain. (Photo: Christie Vuong)

I like to think I’ve mastered self-care. My go-tos are devouring new flavours at the local gelateria, enjoying a hot cup of strong black coffee, watching Bend It Like Beckham, making popcorn at home then drizzling coconut oil and maple syrup on it, bingeing episodes of The Golden Girls and buying myself flowers from my friend, Bilqees, a masterful floral designer. I live by a principle taught by Black queer thinker Audre Lorde: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

But one of the ways I was falling short was embedding self-care into my work. I’m the co-creator of the successful feminist sports podcast Burn It All Down and a senior contributor for CBC Sports, and that means my work and my profile are often targets for harassment. As one of the only racialized female sports journalists in the country, I am accustomed to getting a lot of negativity thrown my way.

Earlier this year, I began to evaluate how I could change that. I thought back to a conversation I had with my boss, Chris Wilson. He said he thought I was funny, which struck me because I focus on the intersections of race and gender in sport—not always happy topics. As a columnist, I dive into polarizing issues. But, yes, I’m funny. I love to laugh. I enjoy comedy—unoffensive comedy.

So when Chris said he wanted to capitalize on that side of my talent, I paused. How does one go from being critical of systems of oppression in sports and segue into humour? How does one connect all those pieces of themselves?

I realized that the common link is joy.

Seeking to learn more about struggle and movement, and how to resist against systems of oppression, I turned to the guidance of Black women. In a 2017 article, Black activist and author Brittany Packnett explains how she uses joy to resist harmful systems that plague society. Self-care, she says, is exactly what white supremacists want to steal from her and her community. Joy, on the other hand, leads to thriving and a way of life that feels abundant, countering oppression. I realized I had been using joy as part of my own professional practice in the same way: The comments at the end of my articles are often terrible, so I avoid reading them. Their negativity is used as a form of attack—and I know this. So I have implemented joy into the difficult topics I cover.


With some of the editorial team at CBC Sports, we came up with the idea for me to further this use of joy by writing an online notebook that comes out every Friday called Joy Drop. Joy Drop would be a piece of happiness, sharing joyful moments in the world of sports, moments from wider culture and little pockets of contentment that I have held or experienced.

But would I be able to dive deeply into tough subjects on Monday in my usual sports column and then pivot quickly to an uplifting mood on Friday? Would it seem disingenuous?

At a time when the world is still recovering from a pandemic, when cases of mental health struggles are through the roof, when the cost of living has skyrocketed, there must be a way to couple reality with joy. Holding space for joy has not only been a way to cope with uncertainty and stress, it is also crucial to staying centred while fighting the good fight. Along the way, this practice has shielded my own mental health and helped me reflect on what I need to focus on during my work week.

The first time I realized how crucial that focus on joy was to my work was during an interview for my podcast with trans athlete Chris Mosier in March. He told me that embracing joy was an essential part of his work in trans advocacy, especially at a time when his community is being attacked by policy-makers. “By telling trans people to lean into their joy, to celebrate their victories and accomplishments and celebrate the love that they have for themselves and other people in their community, that is a form of resistance,” Mosier told me.

Mosier and I both teared up during that interview, but we also laughed and made plans to have vegan ice cream in the future. I happily justify my dairy-free gelato consumption as necessary for fighting the good fight. And just as necessary is teaming up with people and leaning into community to hold joy.


But starting a column as specifically rooted in happiness as Joy Drop was not as easy as I imagined. When the world feels unbearably heavy, it can be challenging to come up with 500 words about joy. Sharing happiness while traumatic events unfold is a delicate process.

During the week of May 24, I was in Edmonton at my son’s national volleyball championships. I chatted with my editor, Pat, from the hotel lobby, and we decided on a plan for my Monday sports column. But as I stood at the sidelines of my son’s games that afternoon, my partner sent me a text about the elementary school shooting in Uvalde, Texas. I had intended to write about the matchup between the Edmonton Oilers and the Calgary Flames during the NHL playoffs and had even casually interviewed a few locals. But as I sat in front of my laptop late that night, my son peacefully and safely sleeping in his bed in our hotel room, my heart felt heavy.

How could I write about something that seemed so irrelevant? How could I pen a column about a hockey rivalry when parents were trying to identify the bodies of their precious children? I only had a few hours before I had to jump on a plane back home.

I filed my story for Pat at 1:30 a.m. It was the middle of the night in Toronto, and I knew he wouldn’t read it until I was 30,000 feet in the air. Through a stream of tears, I wrote what came to me—about Texas, not hockey. And when I landed at Pearson International Airport several hours later, it was already published online. I was relieved, but unsure whether it would be well-received. Later that week, I had to write Joy Drop. What was I going to say? My heart was completely broken. As a mom, I was distressed and grieving. But I find being honest with readers is the best thing to do. In moments like that, looking for something hopeful amid sadness is imperative. That’s what I wrote about. I didn’t want to sound disingenuous in my sunny attitude, but nothing else that week mattered to me as much as the horrific events at Robb Elementary School.

Part of this journey of practising joyful writing means balancing joy with grief and being honest in the process. So I wrote about hope. For me, hope is a cousin of joy. I hoped my words could accurately convey that.


I tried my best to be transparent that it was difficult to write Joy Drop that week, when so many people were suffering. But I also got a lot of messages and emails thanking me for writing it.

Of course, there are a few people who respond to my weekly online notebook with vicious and unkind commentary. But I realize that this response is not about the joy I am sharing, but rather more of an indication of their own struggle to be able to embrace the happiness of others.

Sometimes, I’ll call on my friends and readers to send happy things my way. I often receive messages of hilarious and joyful happenings. I am not afraid to ask for help in finding or locating good things. I used to do it alone, but practising and sharing joy is a community practice, too. Learning from and sharing with others has been essential for me. I don’t have to suffer alone or be sad alone, and although there are moments of private joy, sharing my own happiness with others has been transformative.

Using joy as a part of my personal and professional practice has helped me become more aware of what I am sharing and more mindful of my own intentions. There are weeks when joy is abundant, and I get to offer it to everyone with gusto. Then there are weeks when all I have to share is my cat. Fortunately, she is beautiful and fluffy and brings people a smile. Giving people a reason to smile is resistance at a time when we need anti-oppression the most.

In The Prophet, one of my favourite pieces of writing, Lebanese writer Kahlil Gibran writes about joy and sorrow. “The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain,” he writes. After hardship, I have come to learn, there can be ease—and I can share this ease with others.


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