It’s Time to Start Treating Pain & Joy as Equals
“There is no love of life without despair of life.” ~ Albert Camus
The first few months of the year were good. Spurred by my New Year’s resolutions and the discipline of my daily rituals, I found myself at the zenith of my happiness. I had reached the apogee of what I wanted from life and what life wanted from me.
I had finally found the right balance between involvement at work and time for my writing. I was deepening the relationships that mattered. I was even enjoying some downtime.
I had attained happiness.
Then mid-July came, and with it went all of my so-called happiness, withering away like a beautiful rose plucked from its roots.
In the three months leading to that point, I had been working long hours on my upcoming book. In addition, my over-commitment to speaking and social events and my company’s cash flow problems in a dithering economy combined to increase my cortisol levels.
When July came, I was physically exhausted, and with impending empty nest syndrome on my mind, I also became emotionally drained. I found myself slowly drifting into another of my melancholic periods.
Happiness doesn’t last.
The pursuit of happiness is dangerous. It lulls us into believing that life must always be good and that our every moment must be filled with laughter, smiles and high fives. In reality, however, happiness is only part of the equation, and it doesn’t cater to growth.
We need to recognise that happiness is a temporary state of being. It keeps us optimistic and hopeful, but to expect to have it all the time is both naive and misguided.
It’s rather more truthful to pursue a life that is full of meaning, growth and wholeness. A life that is always in a state of flux. A life in which our ultimate aim is to live in harmony with our true nature. However, we must acknowledge that it is only through pain and discomfort that we change and evolve. Only through suffering did our species survive and grow to where we are today. It’s the struggles that push us out of our comfort zones and into new experiences that we daren’t try before — and so we develop.
Pain, setbacks and sadness are inevitable in our lives, and we need to be realistic enough to accept them as part of our journey. Pain is not just “a part” but an important one, as it becomes this great teacher, rather than something we simply endure. When we dig deep into pain, we remove the mounds of anguish blocking the path to our joy.
As we come face to face with the darkness, we are forced to be with it, to befriend it, and to know it deeply. Only then do we see a tiny ray of hope showing us how bright our light can shine.
If people are answering the eternal question of what they want in life by saying they want to be happy, then the better question is, “How much are you willing to sacrifice and suffer to attain that happiness?”
In mid-July, I came back home after a magical (happy) stay in Vermont for my MFA writing program. From a great high, I quickly fell into a deep funk. I found myself alone at home, as my family and most of my friends were out of the country. I couldn’t replicate the feelings I’d had on campus of meaning flowing through my veins.
Luckily, I had booked a week-long holiday in Spain at the end of the month to meet up with family and friends. As soon as my feet touched Spanish ground, I vowed that I would not check my emails, go on social media or surf the internet. I wanted to enjoy the sensual presence of the sun, beach, good food and red wine. I wanted to celebrate, rather belatedly, the several wins I had under my belt.
I came back much refreshed and ready to start again. And it was precisely those tough, emotionally jarring weeks in July that prepared my mind to see the meaning with which I had imbued my actions.
I looked pain straight in the eye, accepted it, endured it and waited for it to go.
Pain and joy are inextricably linked if we want meaning in our lives. They work together, on the same team. One serves for a period, then hands the baton to the other — and then the other takes over again for a time. And so on. The trick is not to get attached to either. We should expect happiness to fade, just as we must wait for pain to go away. Just so, a wave comes to shore, and then retreats back to the ocean.
Some of us find ourselves stuck in a comfortable happiness that doesn’t serve us anymore. Meanwhile, others like me are so focused on growth and struggle that we forget to celebrate our wins or take care of ourselves. We end up physically and emotionally bankrupt. We are unable to enter the next stage of growth, and like the “comfortably happy” people, we become stuck in that stage of struggle where bitterness and anxiety rule us. As such, we lose all sense of meaning and fall into the abyss of depression.
Wholeness encompasses pain and joy in their entirety. It’s time we started treating both as equals in this beautiful journey called life.