What Suffering Teaches Us About Joy

What does suffering have to do with joy? It may seem a silly question. After all, suffering is the thing we are trying to get away from and joy is a place we’d like to get to. So other than being apparent opposites, what have these two concepts to tell us about each other?

It likely comes as no surprise that most people come see me because they are in some way, not happy. They may be suffering from a malaise, an anxiety or even a devastation. They are unlikely to have much access to contentment or joy. So, it seems a simple task of finding the things they need to do, think or understand in order to plot a path to the good stuff.

But I’ve noticed something in the last little while. It started as a sense of frustration in certain sessions where I seemed to be arguing with clients about what things meant or what the implications were of this or that. Whenever I’m arguing with a client, even the littlest bit, that is a signal for me to check in. This resistance, from me or them, means something.

In these times that have struck me lately, the conflict has consistently involved a refusal to consider a painful thing. It could be a painful memory, a painful pattern, a fear of loss or a fear of vulnerability. The similarity in every case was the client’s insistence that it was either unimportant or the client’s slippery avoidance of the thing I was wondering about.

It got me thinking, we live with an unwritten rule most of the time, “Avoid pain, seek good stuff”. It is one of those apparently self-evident truths of existence. I think though, it is a half truth. Avoiding pain is a survival tactic. It seems evolutionarily sound. But what if pain=avoidance isn’t the right equation? What if it’s pain=pay attention? That is a whole different set of ideas. That is a whole different set of possibilities.

If we place our hand on a hot burner, we are compelled to pay attention. In a split second, we assess, “This is very bad for my hand” and we remove the hand. The decision to avoid hot burners is made AFTER we first pay attention.

If we have a pain in our chest that feels like a truck is crushing us, we pay attention. If we try to avoid that pain by taking a leftover Tylenol 3 and taking a nap, we may never wake up because our heart gives out.

This translates to our experiences of emotional pain also. Pain, in the form of sadness, depression, anxiety, dread, grief, anger, shame, fear and all those evil horrible things we like to avoid, is a message. PAY ATTENTION. There is information here that you need to know.

It is only through the looking at, the feeling of and the acceptance of our emotional signals that we can begin to make sense of what we have to do. If, like some of my clients some of the time, we refuse to even look at it, never mind feel some of it, we will remain stuck.

You don’t walk into my office to feel better though some mysterious painless magic. It’s work. Sometimes the work is really hard. But there is wisdom and peace to be gained if you face the pain and suffering in your emotional life. I would even be so bold to say that joy can only come out of the acknowledgement of how we suffer. It isn’t just about the contrast of feeling crappy to feeling good. It is the wisdom gained in that journey of understanding all your aspects, the wounded ugly bits of you that you don’t think anyone will love, the sad lonely abandoned bits, the terrified of being seen bits. You KNOW those bits, don’t you?

If you don’t, I’d invite you to consider taking a look some day, somewhere safe, where no one cares if you fall apart or get snot on your sleeve. The end result, done well, is joy. The alternative is often a life of continued puzzling suffering that no amount of chasing happiness will assuage. No amount of new clothes or career changes or kids or money or booze or sex will do it.

Perhaps we’ll meet on the path somewhere…but I can’t promise it won’t hurt.