On the other side of joy is pain, and like a coin with two sides, you can’t have one without the other. In a society that is more and more focused on the individual’s right to happiness, it is interesting to note that emotions that are on the other end of the spectrum from happiness are shunned. Sadness, loneliness, melancholy, anger, doubt, disappointment and disillusionment are feelings that we are encouraged to avoid, ignore or medicate away with one tool or another. You’ve probably seen the well-intentioned Facebook quips that go something like, “If someone or something doesn’t make you happy, then move on-life is too short! You deserve to live every minute of life to its fullest!” Faced with one of these posts this morning, I asked myself, What does it mean to live life to its fullest? And, does that really mean being ‘happy’ all the time?
Claude Debussy once said that, “Music is the space between notes”. Debussy understood that the silence between the musical notes was the place where listeners could feel, interpret, reflect and engage with the music. He knew that continual musical notes, not properly spaced and edited, would fail to be beautiful. My thought today is that life is much the same way. Perhaps the spaces between the moments that are beautiful, inspiring, life-affirming or transcendent play more of a key role than most of us realize.
All of nature seems to point to the interplay and contingent relationship between pain and joy. Rainbows are the magic that appear only after rainstorms. The miracle of new life is not met without the intense, maternal, physical pains of labor. Butterflies only emerge after metamorphosing from the unappreciated phase of caterpillar. Children give their parents much pride as well as much pain and sometimes more of the latter. Sickness reminds us of the blessing of good health. Physical death engages us with spiritual prospects and attunes us to the brevity of life. Loss makes gain feel all the better when it comes. Anguish helps to form the notion of joy, so that we understand it fully. The coldness of indifference, apathy and hatred shed light on how precious love is, when it is found. Can spring fully be enjoyed without remembrance of the final, dismal, chilly day of autumn, when the last dried leaf fell to the ground? Can a child’s laughter at the end of a day be so perfectly joyful without all of the previous moments of frowns and tears? Can love making be so fulfilling without time for anticipation? Can wholeness be experienced without first feeling incomplete? Can an appetite be satisfied if one is not first hungry? What is peace, if war has not been known?
In a culture where escape is readily available in every shape and form, it is always tempting to avoid pain. Distraction is ever available whenever a ‘negative’ emotion creeps in. So, for me, I’ve decided to not be afraid of these emotions. And, if I do feel afraid, I might just sit quietly and embrace that fear with some bravery and see what happens. When faced with loneliness, I will embrace it. When feeling disappointed, I will not try to escape it. When angry, I will own and understand it. When sad, I will remember that sadness is an incurable and important part of the human condition. In doing so, I will engage this masterpiece of life fully, it’s devastations and it’s rapture.
Here is a link to Claude Debussy’s masterpiece, Clair de lune: