No Joy Without Suffering

This rainy day feels like a good one for me to pour my heart out a little bit. Nothing despondent or anything, just something I was thinking about.

My husband loves the mountains. He grew up here on the (Canadian) west coast where they’ve always been in sight. He was watching the documentary This Mountain Life on Thursday night. I wasn’t planning to watch it with him. But then I happened to see a scene with a woman dressed in a long nun’s habit skiing through a snowy glade and I got sucked in.

Photo from This Mountain Life

Beautiful footage and such lovely, contemplative dialogue. A theme that flowed through the documentary was spoken by one of the two protagonists:

If you don’t have dark you don’t know what is light. When you suffer you feel joy just that much more intensely.

Tania Halik (This Mountain Life)

Similar words have been said before:

Without suffering, there’s no happiness. So we shouldn’t discriminate against the mud. We have to learn how to embrace and cradle our own suffering and the suffering of the world, with a lot of tenderness.

Thích Nhất Hạnh (No Mud, No Lotus: The Art of Transforming Suffering)

What is joy without sorrow? What is health without illness? You have to experience each if you are to appreciate the other. There is always going to be suffering. It’s how you look at your suffering, how you deal with it, that will define you.

Mark Twain

I started to think about how much my life has changed in the past ten years or so. I’ve always been an empathetic person – feeling the emotions of those around me, whether I want to or not. But back in my teens and early twenties I really surrounded myself with suffering. I was drawn to it. Not because I wanted to suffer, but because I wanted to help.

I’m not sure how much I was able to help. But I tried. I really put myself out there, way out of my comfort zone. As a volunteer, and also as a youth worker, I met lots of young people in precarious or crisis situations. Teens and young adults who were using street drugs, selling drugs, living with psychosis, living with abusive families, in foster care, running away, homeless, sexually exploited, self-harming.

It was tough work. I found myself crying any time I allowed myself a moment to reflect. I didn’t burn out (that happened a few years later) but I do think I experienced secondary traumatic stress or vicarious traumatization. For years afterward I would experience anxiety from simply being near one of my former workplaces or other locations that reminded me of the job.

It was a time in my life when I felt at the end of my rope – at the end of my self – on, at least, a weekly basis. But it was also I time when I felt very close to God. In the sense that I was always praying for strength and wisdom and provision. And indeed I felt that I was provided for in every area I had need. It was a time when my emotional life had great depth and richness.

Was it a sustainable way to live? I don’t know. But in the years since, I’ve backed off from things that scare me, and the things I know will hurt me. For various reasons, I’ve also been isolated from / isolated myself from my church community and other communities. Sometimes it feels like I’ve gone from being a brave person at her wits end to being a cowardly person who lives in comfort and safety.

I hope I haven’t become a coward who is too afraid to reach outside of myself. I’d like to look at this time as a season of rest, recovery and growth. A time to restore my emotional reserves and to dream. Even though I’m not 100% sure if it was the right path to take, I’m grateful to have had this time. It’s quite possible I needed it.

I think this period of rest has given me energy and strength to enter a new stage of life: motherhood. Being pregnant, giving birth, caring for an infant and now a toddler – these short periods of time have been incredibly deep and rich. Yes, there is a lot of discomfort, but the joy is profound.

And now that my daughter is here in this world, I have all the more reason to step out of my comfort zone – even to step into suffering – if it means making the world a better place.

Haha – now I just have to figure out how to make the world a better place….

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