I have a good life. But how can I experience joy when there is so much suffering outside?
I had thought I had come to terms with suffering in the world. I have a good life, good husband, enjoy my job, good health, lovely place to live, no money worries. On an intellectual level I know being sad won’t help anyone. I do some volunteer work, vote for who I believe is a better choice, donate some money to charities I believe in, live a simple life, I thought that was enough.
But, recent world events have broken through. How can I experience joy when there is so much suffering? I could turn off the news, withdraw even further, but is that not selfish cowardice? Should I not at least bear witness? I feel like outside is endless suffering, which I can not stop. I feel guilty, then I feel self indulgent about feeling guilty. I don’t know what to do, or feel any more.
Eleanor says: Once, I tried to make a fire in the rain. It was in a campfire pit, totally elementary for anyone with any degree of outdoor skill. But I’d been walking for what felt like weeks, I’d twisted an ankle, and there was rain. Spiteful sheets of rain that obeyed no known physics – moving up and down and diagonally and under my glasses at the same time.
The idea of a fire was – I mean this literally – unimaginable. There were too many contradictions between my immediate sensations and the ones I was trying to hope for and achieve: wet/dry, cold/hot, misery/triumph.
Some feelings, some sensations, are so overwhelming that they make us forget what the alternative is like. Being wet down to your thermals is one.
Being saturated in suffering is another. So much of our polity drenches us in pain – our own, other people’s, future people’s – if we don’t solve our problems in time. It’s easy to forget that this creates a feeling – beliefs too, but for many of us, a feeling. It’s a sensation as bone deep as being wet through three layers, and as effective at removing our ability to imagine an alternative. As you write: “how can I experience joy?”
You don’t need to focus directly on joy.
Fire seemed unimaginable to me because it was too far from what I was experiencing. There was a contradictory gap I couldn’t get across. But a spark – that I could imagine. You can get a match to fizz when it’s pouring. And it turns out a fire doesn’t care at all whether you could imagine it in advance – it only cares whether you can give it a spark.
I think joy is a bit the same. If you try to imagine it while you’re feeling acute pain, you will despair at how far away it seems, and this will cause more of the sensations that make joy hard to imagine, and so on down the misery drain we go.
But if you try to imagine little sparks of happiness, instead of the full blown fire of joy, you won’t run into the same clash of contradictions. Those sparks can show up flinty and bright inside all kinds of torrential misery. Next to every disaster there are people trying to help. Under every oppression there are people being brave. Asking whether they’ll win is a good way to despair. Noticing that they’re there is some kind of spark.
The neat trick about this is that once you’ve caught a spark, a little more doesn’t seem so unimaginable. The tiniest stir of optimism or love for a stranger reminds us what those sensations are like, and feeling that thaw is exciting. But just as you can’t go straight from downpour to roaring hearth, you can’t go straight from desolation to joy.
Often trying to imagine joy from within desolation just adds the chasm between the two to the list of things to despair about. Try to start small instead – try to catch a little spark.