Joy and Sorrow as Humanity’s Warp and Weft

It astonishes me sometimes – no, often – how ever person I get to know – everyone, regardless of everything, by which I mean everything – lives with some profound personal sorrow. Brother addicted. Mother murdered. Dad died in surgery. Rejected by their family. Cancer came back. Evicted. Fetus not okay. Everyone, regardless, always, of everything.

Ross Gay in The Book of Delights

When Theresa and finished reading together from The Book of Delights, we turned right back to the first page and started again and so you might think that I’ve read the essay that the above was taken from – number 14, “Joy is Such a Human Madness,” the title of which is also a quote, this time from Zadie Smith – maybe twice. But I’ve read it six, seven, a dozen times.

In this essay, Gay links the guiding pursuit of this book – building his ability to be delighted by noticing delightful moments with intention – to the inevitability of pain and sorrow and death. And in that, we see that we are all siblings, compatriots, in the joys and sorrows of life.

Except, I don’t actually believe that.

Not the joy part. See, Gay – and though I don’t know him, the warmth of his book and the voice I’ve heard in interviews makes me want to call him Ross, makes me feel like we have shared hugs in real life – notes above that we are all fellow sufferers (a term offered to me from Jamaica by way of an interview with Alice Walker) but we are not all making a conscious choice to allow for joy. In fact, I look around and I see the way we’ve all been hijacked for decades now by the promise of happiness-bearing things – things that can be plugged in or gassed up, produced and manufactured things, disposable things, collectable things – and they can do that, things can bring happiness like wispy and fast-moving clouds, like fleeting weather. But they are not joy.

Joy is packaged within us and, so far as I can tell, it comes packaged with existentialism which is to say, we can fear death plenty easy all by itself, but I’m not so sure we can uncork the deep and unending well of joy within us without embracing, at least the tiniest bit, the inevitability of our own coming demise.

Or, as Buddhists say: No mud, no lotus.

And I’m working on a theory now that it is that choice – whether to see ourselves as fellow sufferers, whether we also embrace the joy and hope and possibility and all the ick that goes with it – that is integral to whether we live into empathy – the big, broad, everyone’s in (at least, the attempt to include everyone) kind rather than the tribal, you’re my color/religion/neighbor and therefore I care kind.

Listening to a podcast recently called It was Said, I learned that the families of the Charleston Nine – the people murdered in Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in a premeditated, horrifyingly intimate mass killing by a self-proclaimed white supremacist in 2015 – told the killer at his trial that they forgave him. I literally felt a chill run through my body just writing that.

Before you say, “I couldn’t do that…” I implore you to take a moment for your own good. Because while we tend to think of empathy and forgiveness as something we give to others, they are, actually, something we give to ourselves. It is because of how deeply interwoven we are with one another (despite how much we deny that fact) that we cannot access all of ourselves, enliven our full selves, become our biggest baddest selves, without accepting, in the marrow of our very bones, in the deepest pits of our guts, that what Gay said is true: “Everyone, regardless, always, of everything.”

Not only accepting, though, but also releasing the need to compare because as soon as we start weighing our sorrows on a scale against others, we’re moving away from the reality and validity of each human’s experience, including our own.

And me? I can write this but I’m still learning to live this and suspect that I will be for a long time to come. Join me in the aspiration?


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