John Green Pain and Joy

Pain Does Not Lead To Joy

I have been thinking too much about dichotomy.  The songs which swear, hand over heart, we don’t know happiness without sadness. The philosophers who contend we don’t appreciate something until it’s lost. That physics is in our souls so the most profound heartbreak must be followed by an equal and opposite joy.

I’ve thought about it more because in The Fault in Our Stars by John Green the main character, while dying, dismisses the notion.

John Green Pain and Joy

It seems to me appreciation for life and love only comes when pain and loss is felt in the short-lived, happy-ending moments. I appreciate my spouse more if he goes away for the weekend, but if he suddenly dies and goes away forever, will I appreciates my spouse and everyone around me with more truth or intensity?

The trade is certainly not even, and the world is not brighter for the loss. In reality, a profound heartache skews the world, creating a distrust, sometimes even a contempt, which colors both happiness and sadness. It either breaks us or we accept that the justice we clung to when stubbing our toe or reading CNN is non-existent. If we yield to this radical randomness, we appreciate the moments we feel “normal”, but we do not experience extreme happiness because we were beaten or neglected or raped or lost someone to illness or death.  The arc from depression to joy merely moves down the scale so the highs we appreciate are what those without broken hearts see as regular life.  The lightness others carry is a gift we give away to tragedy. Tragedy in the Shakespearian sense as well as a pileup on the interstate, which of course, is not a popular notion. Nobody wants degrees of hurt until someone compares their child to a dog or their cancer to bronchitis.

Beyond the touchy feely, all-in-it-together, life raft, is the fact that some of us are living in other people’s worst nightmares. How can we equate the pain of the parent who worries her child will be taken from her home and forced to carry a gun against the very country they live in to the parent whose kid fell off the swings and broke their leg, which was fixed in a state-of-the-art emergency room and covered by their health insurance. Will the latter come through appreciating their two-legged child and lack of broken bones and access to healthcare for the rest of their days? Perhaps the gratitude will wan over time in accordance with how difficult the ordeal was, but can we really expect the parent and child to come back from war exactly opposite of what it did to them? Bouncing down the path, excited to live. Or should we make room for them to be broken and hurt long past the time it takes for a broken bone to heal? Perhaps forever. Or that tragedies do not always not end in our lifetime thus this equal and opposite reaction can never begin for some of us? Do we dare to mention the haphazardness of being born in a village during wartime and not 3000 miles away in peace and comfort and jungle gyms?

I don’t mean to pretend to understand all of these individual experiences, but this dichotomy of loss producing gains of joy and wisdom and gratitude is as unfair as life turns out to be. It is a way to explain why we suffer to those who aren’t suffering. If there is a purpose to deep pain, we can shake off the dizzying notion that at any time, to anyone, terror can drag us from of our homes and set us adrift between diagnoses and the news cycle. We then explain away the sufferer, himself. We ask: What did the he do to deserve this? What hasn’t the sufferer done to fix it? Because if there are answers, those living with only little bumps in the road can avoid the worst, and those in the early stages of grief can find superficial comfort.

Eventually, these wise and happy sufferers have nobody to answer the hardest of questions: Why should we be the ones to learn how to appreciate life on a deeper level? We don’t want to live out people’s worst fears. We don’t want to be stronger than our friends and neighbors. We would rather trudge along oblivious except when a child scrapes his knee or a spouse is running unexpectedly late than have wide eyes to the reality that some of us are just grateful to now and then act and live normally while grief ebbs and flows below the surface. Even if broken hearts makes us more interesting or understanding, we would not choose it. All the depth of emotion we are given only serves to bury us, and when our hands reach up to through the surface, they are quickly shaken while mouths run along sing pithy songs and eyes betray a thankfulness, or worse, a knowingness, that it isn’t them.

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