In Defense of Suffering
I’m not here for joy. I’m here to be alive— fully, intentionally, sometimes painfully alive. I’m here for depth and connection, love and compassion.
But above all, I am here to be authentic.
Authenticity is a tricky thing, as it can lead to feelings defined as “negative” or “bad”. Sometimes authenticity means suffering.
Life is varied and includes disappointments. There are wishes that don’t come true for each of us, and we get to have feelings about that. Being “joyful” in the face of a less than happy circumstance demands a certain amount of disassociation, denial, and a hefty dose of avoidance. Presenting a demeanor that is incongruent to the situation is disingenuous, and potentially even (unintentionally) cruel to others. Especially when the incongruency takes on the form of Toxic Positivity. Long-term that type of pseudo-joy doesn’t work, it doesn’t lead to the formation and growth of the individual; it certainly doesn’t work in creating deep, and meaningful relationships. It doesn’t foster authenticity or happiness.
Anger, sadness, disappointment, fear— All of these emotions serve a purpose; all are necessary to the experience of being alive. Joy, as a feeling, is no better than the others. It is overrated on its own. And it can only, at most, be equally as important. At times I am personally not convinced of even that.
I would argue there is no growth of self or depth of character that is created in joy. Joy is what happens “ever-after”. It is an outcome of confronting grief, overcoming disappointment, moving through our imperfections and those of our partners, our children, our lives. Joy is only available on the other side of suffering and experiencing the pain of those wishes that didn’t come true. Joy is a flimsy little thing in and of itself. It needs the contrast and power of suffering to exist.
Before becoming a therapist I studied literature and languages. Here I first discovered archetypal stories from Shakespeare to fairy-tales, each, that warn us of the chaos and disorder created when we are unable to accept our lot in life when we are avoidant of “what is”, deny who we are, and who we are not. Things never go well in the world of the story when we run from painful realities.
In my work as a therapist, I find again the destructive role of avoidance, incongruence, and lack of acceptance. In the simplest terms, clients come to me because they want to be “happy”. They might word it differently, but whittled down that is what we are all seeking. Joy.
Yet, there is a case to be made for anger, sadness, loss, and pain. This is not an argument to live in perpetual suffering. Instead, we are invited to confront our hurt, move through it, incorporate it. If we are lucky (and have the right therapist), we might even overcome it.
Yet, oftentimes the individual seeking happiness shows up not understanding that the only road to joy includes moving through all other emotions too, sometimes first. It is human instinct to want to avoid pain. Yet, there is a learning and deepening that we are rewarded with when we are willing to walk through the valley of the darkest parts of our lives and ourselves. There are gifts endowed upon us in the form of courage, confidence, resiliency, and self-love. We get to become more of the beautiful, spectacular “self” that is inside us. That expanded self is able to connect more fully to others, love more deeply, laugh from the core.
We get to feel and become more authentic in our relationships, gain access to joy more often. And maybe (just maybe), in moments, we even get to be happy.