Grief, Gratitude, and Joy

Elderly woman smiling joyfully

Our Suffering World

All over the world, people are suffering. That’s nothing new. We humans have been hurting one another since before we painted images of war on the walls of caves; and we hunt our furred and feathered cousins for food, or clothing, or just for sport; and now, in breathtaking numbers, we cut down the trees whose leaves turn our pollution into something breathable, and heat up our planet beyond repair. It seems there can be no life without pain.

So suffering has always been with us. Lately, though, it has reached the point of explosion. With the pandemic, we became isolated. Businesses folded, employees lost jobs, schools scrambled to provide online learning, families tried to cope without childcare.

Now there’s war in Ukraine, and, as of May 25, there were 213 mass shootings in the United States this year. [1] Instead of solving our problems, we continue to argue about immigration, abortion, elections, and, of course, guns. Our differences seem irreconcilable. Many of us fear our democracy is at risk, but we disagree about the cause and the solution. Soon enough, none of this may matter, however, for climate change could take us out before anything else does.

Every day, horror and disaster strikes somewhere. It’s hard to keep carrying on.

Grieving Our Losses

But that’s what we do. We carry on.

All right, maybe not everyone does. Sometimes depression grips us so tightly, we can’t bear to move. If it gets bad enough, we end taking our own lives. At other times, resentment and bitterness fester. Those angry emotions eat away at everything that makes us humane and happy. There are many ways of being lost.

Of course, climbing out of depression or relinquishing our rage is not easy. To do so takes honesty, humility, and a willingness to laugh at ourselves. It also takes grieving. We have to accept that tragedy happens, that nothing lasts forever, that ideals are not fully reachable. Failure is the price of trying, and loss the price of loving, and it’s not anyone’s fault. Reality can be terribly disappointing, but clinging to our fantasies is not much better.

So perhaps it’s time to feel our disappointment, to mourn the passing of dreams. Cry for murdered children. Sit with the sadness of a world that is literally and figuratively burning. Know the sorrow of it, breathe it in, for acceptance is part of the process, the first step in moving on.

Not that we ever move on completely. Great loss stays with us, but it softens. The world isn’t suddenly going to become Eden, but we can learn to live with it.

Grief Can Lead to Joy

But isn’t this column supposed to be about spring and gratitude? Why are we talking about grief?

The Bratslaver Rebbe said, “There is nothing so whole as a broken heart.” [2]

Though I cannot speak for the Rebbe, so don’t know for sure what he meant, a few things occur to me. One is that only a loving heart knows how to break. The more we care, the more we hurt. As I said earlier, loss is what we risk when we love. Yet what kind of heart refuses to love? A heart that can’t accept breaking is cold and ugly. Such a heart starts wars, slaughters innocents, and bullies the weak and vulnerable.

Also, beauty arises out of brokenness. In nature, decay feeds new growth. In the face of tragedy, communities bind together. Neighbors bring casseroles, friends sit together in sacred silence, even strangers nurture one another. When horror and despair strike us, we often choose to be our best selves.

No meaning or purpose makes a death worthwhile, but we humans are adept at rising from the ashes, offering acts of kindness, making art and telling stories that enhance our dignity and connection. We are amazing creatures, terrifying and despotic, but glorious and tender at the same time. It seems that the most generous people have experienced the worst hardship. The broken heart becomes whole. That is something to be grateful for.

Seeking Joy

Of course, a shattered life doesn’t always lead to wholeness, but a mundane one certainly won’t. Without some amount of pain and misery, we might be comfortable and decent folk, but we won’t understand eternal oneness, sacred kindness, the compassion that welcomes all. To know those things so deeply we can become them, we need to experience a certain amount of suffering. There is no true wholeness without it.

There also is no true joy.

Joy is different from happiness, for it’s less dependent on things going right and more on how connected we feel to the cosmos, to nature, to the source of life. How open is our heart? How whole?

Thus, joy brings us together. It creates unity. It also banishes spite and hatred. When we feel joyful, we feel alive and glorious and in love with the universe. We relish spring with its new growth. There’s no room in the mended heart for resentment.

That’s why it’s so important to grieve, and why grieving can help us feel gratitude for everything that is. All right, maybe we won’t be grateful for oppression and injustice, but we can be grateful for those who live, for the way we help one another when things are grim, for the shattering that makes us our best selves.

Yes, grieving is hard. We don’t like it. But it’s a lot better than clinging to our anger so tightly we want can’t even enjoy the delight of a toddler’s laugh, or the grace of a perfect basketball shot, or the brilliance of a well-played sonata. So much in life is wonderful. If we let our losses turn us bitter, we will suffer day in and day out in our loneliness and self-imposed pain.

Elderly woman smiling joyfully
Photo by Philippe Leone

Surprised by Joy

So, how do we invite joy into our lives?

Maybe it’s as simple as being grateful. Though some losses are so big we never fully grieve them, if enter far enough into the process, we can begin to feel joy again. Of course, the first moments of happiness in the face of loss may seem like a betrayal.

William Wordsworth expressed this in his poem, “Surprised by Joy,” written after his daughter died.

Surprised by joy—impatient as the Wind

I turned to share the transport—Oh! with whom

But Thee, long buried in the silent Tomb.

William Wordsworth

He then describes how he has “been so beguiled as to be blind/ To the most grievous loss!” [3] The return of thought makes Wordsworth aware of his disloyalty. How horrible to have forgotten, if only for an instant, the heaviness of his grief.

Sometimes that’s the best we can do, cling to the sadness, because to do anything feels like a travesty.

Yet seasons do come and go. Spring arises. Even this year, with the rainy days and the relentless gray, flowers are blooming, birds are singing, babies are being born. Joy may touch us when we least expect it.

Grief, Gratitude, and Joy

We can, though, actively welcome joy. We can cultivate moments of oneness. Live in the moment, both the tragic and the magnificent ones. Be grateful for the gifts that come from pain. I’m not saying you should be grateful for the pain itself, since I haven’t figured out how to do that myself, but I can be grateful for the good that has come from hardship and suffering, like the generosity I talked about earlier, and the beautiful music or paintings.

Not that great art is of supreme importance. It’s just a piece of what makes life so satisfying. So seek beauty, seek open hearts and loving relationships. Go into the woods with friends. Listen to the rustlings of the wind. Watch the ocean ebb and flow. Breathe. Laugh. Hold someone’s hand. Be grateful, even for time, because without it, we could not exist. There is so much to love in this world. Love leads to loss, but it is worth opening ourselves to it.

You and I are human, and humans are imperfect, yet we can be grateful for that, too, for there is joy in the light that streams from the cracks in our hearts. Flowers grow from the ashes. Every twenty-four hours, night falls, the sun rises. When societies fall apart, new ones arise. It’s true that one day, there will be no more days, but until then, grieve what must be grieved, be grateful for what is, and welcome the heart that is made whole through brokenness and that knows how to feel joy.

In faith and fondness,

Barbara

Credits

  1. Ahmed, Saeed, “It’s 21 Weeks Into the Year and America Has already Seen 213 Mass Shootings,” NPR, Updated, May 25, 2022, accessed June 4, 2022, https://www.npr.org/2022/05/15/1099008586/mass-shootings-us-2022-tally-number.
  2. Menachem Mendel  Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, a Chassidic rebbe, (The Kotzker Rebbe- 1787-1859)
  3. Wordsworth, William, “Surprised by Joy,” 1815, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/50285/surprised-by-joy.

Photo by Philippe Leone from Unsplash

Copyright © 2022 Barbara E. Stevens. All Rights Reserved.

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