I believe that joy will find a way in 2017. I really do. I also think there will be pain, some of it residual and bleeding into the New Year and some of it relating to new hurts that still lie before us. So much of the richness of life involves embracing the full scope of experience. Sometimes that means holding joy and suffering in tandem. This, of course, becomes harder to swallow as the suffering reaches the depths of despair, but in a sense that is when it becomes most important to remember. As much as Western binary thinking might challenge this, the existence of one does not negate the other.
There’s a scene I keep going back to from my favorite movie, the mock music documentary “This Is Spinal Tap.” Derek, the bassist in the fictional band is talking about the two visionary bandleaders, expressing that they’re like fire and ice, and he deadpans that he feels his role is to be in between them, kind of like lukewarm water.
I go back to this (I’ll call it DSP, or “Derek Smalls Phenomenon”) because, as funny as I find the quip in the film, it is the opposite of my own experience with the poles of emotion. Maybe it would be easier (or a least easier to explain things) if DSP governed my life, but for me these poles coexist. I started to realize this a few years ago when I realized that I was unable to offer a genuine single-adjective response to the seemingly simple question of “how are you?”
At that time I was doing some deep, dark work in the realm of inner demon-slaying, an exhausting process that left me hyper-aware of painful places inside. And at the same time, I was experiencing moments of real fulfillment in my life. So people would ask me how I was doing and if I was trying to be sincere I would stammer in attempting to fashion a response. By the principles of DSP, the answer would be a very straightforward “okay” and in truth I would generally give that response simply because it was easier. But the more genuine answer would have been “I’m having a really hard time . . . and life is beautiful and inspiring. Lots of fire and lots of ice, very little lukewarm water.”
I’ve been thinking about this as we head into the New Year, with so many around me feeling the pain of experiences that have marred the year that has passed, whether due to politics, loss of heroes, or personal tragedy. Never before 2016 have I heard such widespread sentiment of a calendar year being lousy. Personally, I have great hope, optimism even, that joy will abound in 2017. I do not, however, expect it to push the suffering aside. Indeed, my personal take-away from 2016 is all about the coexistence of fire and ice.
For me the end of 2016 has been gut-wrenching. However, as recently as a couple months ago I would have characterized the year as a wonderful one, if only because of one experience. In April Kate and I legally adopted our two younger daughters, Ariana and Tiana. Though they were 25 and 23 and had been a permanent part of our family for years, I still knew it would be an emotional experience, but I wasn’t fully prepared for HOW emotional it would be. Without getting into the minutiae of that day here (ask me sometime, I’ll gladly tell you all about it), I can say that it changed me.
Specifically, I had a moment walking from the parking lot to the courthouse when I was filled with such gratitude and love that I stopped in the snow to breathe deeply and tell myself “you must never forget how blessed you are that you could experience something this beautiful.” And I have reminded myself of this over and over since then, that redemptive love is not only a beautiful thing to experience but proof that life itself is a blessing.
This is as true now as it was in April . . . and there is some heavy new pain residing beside this joy. I’m learning not to be surprised by the extent to which each is relatively impervious to the other. Some degree of joy might be muted by suffering and some degree of suffering might be healed by joy, but on balance they both remain. So as I spent my last reflective moments in 2016, my grief was still intense, but so was my love and gratitude for my family and more generally to simply have been able to participate in loving interactions, including with those who are no longer here in the physical plane.
The joy can’t erase the pain, and truth be told I personally don’t even wish it could. Don’t get me wrong, I’m no masochist, and just because living with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome has forced me to increase my pain threshold, I hardly enjoy pain. But with EDS, awareness of pain is necessary to be sufficiently attuned to my body – a pain in my hip is what alerts me to the injury or ergonomic misjudgment or whatever issue needs my attention. And so it goes with my heart. My capacity to be a loving, caring person relies on my attunement to what’s actually going on. And if what’s going on is tragic, then attunement will equal suffering. The thing is, for me the suffering of turning away from whatever is going on (and thus inevitably both alienating those also impacted by whatever is going on and failing to nurture my own broken parts) is even less bearable than the suffering of facing it.
But if the joy can’t erase the pain, I do believe it can soothe. In a sense, joy and pain are manifestations of the same energy. If you choose to engage fully and feel deeply, you will invariably experience both to some degree. Living a life that shields you from pain will inherently also shield you from joy, a sacrifice I personally am unwilling to make. I certainly don’t suggest gratuitously inviting pain or suffering into one’s life in a misguided attempt to enhance the experience of joy. Nor am I suggesting that wallowing in suffering is a way to more fully experience life. But the door to joy remains open even amidst pain. Whether the salve it provides is enough to make life bearable is not my place to dictate for anyone else. But I know that amidst every heartbreak I have experienced have been moments of levity and gratitude and love, moments that are in a sense all the more moving because of my awareness of how much I need them. A game of “ice cream store” with my grand-nieces in the hospital cafeteria moments after my mother’s death, or a knowing hug from someone who knew and loved Claire, or delivery of some lasagna when I’m so depleted from it all that I’m virtually paralyzed . . . these things can be enough to remind me that it is not only possible to endure, but totally worth it. Even the adoption last April was so beautiful in part because of how far we had all climbed to get there and how sacred we all knew that to be.
This is why “joy will find a way” (a phrase borrowed from Bruce Cockburn’s song by that title, one of the most beautiful songs about coping with loss that I have heard) still feels potent. And why when I use that phrase here it is not meant to suggest that joy is in some sort of competition with pain, much less one I’m claiming joy will win. But as long as there is one unbroken corner of my heart, joy has its point of entry. The ice of grief may not melt, but the fire of joy can still warm my soul, and as it does I am reminded that I can endure. Whether it is knowing that I will make it through my grief or knowing that I will have the resources to make it through whatever challenges lie ahead, that reassurance can light each step forward, and each step is an affirmation that life goes on.