I sat down intending to write about joy. It’s one of my favorite topics, and I’m rather fond of the emotion itself. I’ll choose it any time, any day over so many other emotions, and make a practice of doing so regularly. In thinking about the source of joy, though, I keep returning to the consideration that joy does not exist without its counterpart, pain. Joy is very frequently born not of itself, but in spite of and in some instances as a result of pain and suffering.
The Discomfort of Growth and Learning
Growth involves pain and discomfort. I was lucky enough to be taught Anatomy eons ago in college by the renowned neuroscience and incredible teacher Marian Diamond. She enjoyed teasing the class that she had caused us pain by forcing us to work – that there was an element of pain involved in the forming of new synapses that is involved in learning. Applied in various manners, that’s been an extremely important life lesson for me. Any time we embark on new experiences, we step out of our ‘comfort zone,’ and this frequently causes discomfort, uncertainty, and fear. But imagine the stagnant life we would encounter were we to never walk through that discomfort and have new experiences. The Bible incites us in countless ways to use faith to face our fears and achieve growth. “For this momentary light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.” 2 Corinthians 4:17.
Our society, in general, does not approve of discomfort in any form, and there’s an all-too-common belief that we can think, blame or medicate ourselves away from having to feel pain or discomfort. This is a dangerous and ultimately life-destroying viewpoint. Discomfort, pain, and death are inherent to life. Most of us today have never experienced true hunger, true persecution or so many of the existential threats that those that have lived in various locations and times throughout history have faced on a daily basis. This is an incredible blessing, but human nature being what it is, we tend to make much of the discomforts we do have.
St. Ignatius set forth with great detail and clarity the reality of both consolation and desolation. He described desolation as a “darkness of the soul, a turmoil of the mind, inclination to low and earthly things, restlessness resulting from many disturbances and temptations which lead to loss of faith, loss of hope and loss of love. It is also desolation when a soul finds itself completely apathetic, tepid, sad and separated as it were, from its Creator and Lord.” (Spiritual Exercises, p. 130). Ignatius wrote his Spiritual Exercises in the 16th century. It is a demonstration of the unchanging nature of humans that he is able to describe so accurately and so beautifully sensations I’ve had too many times to count but would struggle to put into words.
In addition to encountering the struggles, disappointments, and discomfort of daily life, at some point, each of us encounters far greater, more enduring pain. None of us emerges unscathed – life’s reality includes illness, loss, and death.
A seed must break in order to grow. It is destroyed in order to create. The ground it is planted in must be broken and tilled to be fertile. It’s an essential element of human life and one that we see demonstrated throughout nature as well as in our lives. 1 Corinthians 15:36 chastises us – “You fool! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies.” In the same vein, our spiritual growth requires the painful overcoming of fears and dealing with discomfort and pain.
The relationship between pain and joy is inherent to the human experience. The most physical pain I’ve experienced was in the birth of my children, who brought meaning to my life and bring a joy that is indescribable. Equally indescribable, though, is the pain I and so many others have experienced with the lack of childbirth. Miscarriages are the most elemental anguish I have yet to experience, and I do not hope to experience anything to match them in terms of their eviscerating nature. I have yet to find words that are adequate.
Choose Hope or Choose Bitterness
Painful experiences, as with so many of life’s challenges, become growth opportunities and demonstrate the power of perspective as well as the basic reality of “God’s will, not mine.” God graced me with two beautiful, healthy children that I find immense joy in. The pain of miscarriages was clearly not somehow designed to make me appreciate my living children more, but I do in fact appreciate them more because of these experiences. The free will we have been granted allows us a choice – focus on the disappointment of pain and become bitter in the process, or focus on the opportunity of surviving pain to give us hope and strength.
There is a great strength to be gained through surviving and walking through significant painful moments in life as well as enduring our times of desolation in order to grow and develop spiritually as well as to genuinely and fully appreciate and experience the joy we are blessed with. “Not only that, but we even boast of our afflictions, knowing that affliction produces endurance, and endurance, proven character, and proven character, hope.” Romans 5:3-4. Ultimately, our sufferings bring us the gift of true hope. And this hard-won hope we can glory in and share with others.