Essential misery?

Recently I was in a conversation with a gentleman in an internet forum for people in my profession. I had engaged him in a brief exchange because he had referred to “joy” in a post on the group page. He made a comment I promised myself I would reflect on.

“I sometimes believe that short-term misery is part of much longer-term spiritual joy.”

I am somewhat hesitant to embrace the notion that pain or suffering give us a true sense of appreciation for the long term and ever-present prospect of joy. I always cringe at the sort of Puritanical attitude that we deserve our discomfort because we are wretched, bumbling humans who really don’t deserve to breathe the air of earth, or to embrace anything that feels like contentment.

That said, I also wonder if some taste of grief or discontentment doesn’t work on us the way sugar works in making some dishes. It seems the exact opposite of what you need, but the slight bit of sweetness counteracts the savory aspects of the dish and creates a smooth and pleasant flavor. Seems contrary, but it works.

In my life, I have known some misery. This is different from grief, which extends for a time and then dissipates. Misery is defined as a circumstance, thing, or place that causes suffering or discomfort.

In these times we are living through right now, there is a thing, which is causing a lot of misery for a lot of people. Unemployment, or foreclosure on a home, even homelessness because of this financial mayhem has befallen many. I am always amazed at the resilience of people in these circumstances. Resilience – not joy. There is a sense that “I will not be taken down by the undertow.” Then, for some, things ease a little and joy returns – or perhaps it is found for the first time.

There is a particular man who frequents my church every Sunday. I’ll call him Johnny. Johnny has been homeless for years. He is probably not the brightest of individuals. He is supported by both the city homeless facility across the block from the church, and also by our homeless day center in the basement. In the years of Johnny’s association with our parish, he has distinguished himself by his sweet and trusting attitude. He believes in the immutability of a God he has never seen. He can sing his heart out. He smiles “chronically.” He is a study in joy. Having nothing and yet appreciating everything.

But perhaps this sounds a bit too “churchy” to you. Fair enough. Consider the horrors of the earthquake in Haiti. First of all, did you punch a few buttons on your cell phone and contribute to the relief effort? Wasn’t there some inner sense in you that felt that out of the misery of their plight and your own helplessness for your fellow travelers on this earth that there was joy in the knowledge that we are really all the same and that perhaps that $10 could help? And even more, that you helped?

Secondly, tell me that you did not see at least one Haitian on the television who showed some sort of joy – some sense that all would be well. I saw several of these people. They were sleeping in the open – on rubble-covered streets. But they believed that joy was present. Their ability to summon joy reinforced for me an understanding that my own access to joy was there for the taking.

I want to return to the man who made his comment about misery and long-term spiritual joy.

Misery can allow us to forget that joy can be that lasting thing. That supporting spiritual condition that can help us keep our lives in perspective. I don’t have this perspective embedded into my soul yet. But practicing the art of living well – despite our own troubles – may be all the impetus we need. I try to do this by forgiving more and begrudging less. (Okay, I still curse bad drivers who scare me spitless.) But remembering a Buddhist practice may help in our efforts to live well. When someone parks his grocery cart in the middle of the aisle, say this to yourself: “Just like me, he probably is distracted.” Or when a store clerk seems unfriendly or short-tempered, try thinking: “Just like me, she has bad days, too.” And then, give yourself credit for asking the question.

Because, in asking the question, you begin to build a reservoir where joy can come to lighten the load. You begin the journey of joy. Or so I believe.

I wish you peace.


2 comments on “Essential misery?

  1. Liz Gregory says:

    A technique for keeping your cool that I learned recently – use the Most Respectful Interpretation of their actions. Too often we attribute something another person has done as an inherent character trait, when we would see the same in ourselves as circumstantial. I like being Buddhist in these cases, if nothing else, it cuts down on your own internal stress.

  2. Martha Angel says:

    I was in North Carolina for Dad’s 90th b-day when this posted…you’ll see I’m catching up today.
    I’m putting this in my journal, to pull out from time to time (as needed) to journal with. Thank you for this post.

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