As I sobbed on the phone to a good friend from high school the other night at two o’clock in the morning, insisting that the universe has some sort of Personal Vendetta against JUST ME and that all he doles out on my watch is horrific suffering and when, oh, WHEN, for the love of God, is Something Good going to freaking happen to me for FREAKING ONCE — he asked me something which gave me pause.
“How many close friends do you have, Donna?”
It was an unexpected question. I even stopped crying for a moment, perplexed. “A lot, I guess.”
“Do you have an education? A place to live? Food and drink?”
I nodded (to no end, it may be pointed out, being as how he was on the other end of a phone line and couldn’t see me).
“Have you been given charisma and intelligence and talent?”
I begrudgingly admitted I had.
“Have you been given birds of the air, flowers in the fields, golden sunrises and purple sunsets for your enjoyment and pleasure?”
I couldn’t deny that one either. Damn, he was good.
“It seems to me,” he said gently, “that an awful lot of Something Good has already happened to you.”
He was right, of course. Spot on, in fact, though I was loath to admit it. It made me recall, somewhere in the farthest recesses of my memory, a passage in G. K. Chesterton’s Manalive, in which the protagonist Innocent Smith chases a despairing nihilist professor out onto a parapet and threatens him with a revolver simply to force him to admit that life does in fact have purpose and meaning and value. While the professor dangles off the parapet, the following exchange takes place:
‘You are now engaged in public worship,’ remarked Smith severely, ‘and before I have done with you, you shall thank God for the very ducks on the pond.’ The celebrated pessimist half articulately expressed his perfect readiness to thank God for the ducks on the pond. ‘Not forgetting the drakes,’ said Smith sternly. (Eames weakly conceded the drakes.) `Not forgetting anything, please. You shall thank heaven for churches and chapels and villas and vulgar people and puddles and pots and pans and sticks and rags and bones and spotted blinds.’”
I felt shamed even as I felt my awareness being sharpened. Suddenly, it became all too clear to me that joy and pain are not simply dispensed in haphazard discrete allotments throughout our lifetime, but are all too often inextricably entwined and even interdependent. Pain is simply precluded joy; joy simply pain which has held on a moment longer. In either case, the relationship is an inherently symbiotic one, and you can no more divorce the one from the other than you can isolate the pinks and yellows of a Monet from the charcoals and the greys. At your own peril would you do such violence to a work of art; why, then, would we wish it on the canvas of our lives?
It occurred to me (a bit reluctantly, it must be admitted) that for every sorrow in my life there has been a commensurate blessing, that every great joy of my life has been necessarily preceded by some unspeakable suffering; that only when, as Augustine puts it, as in human utterances, one syllable is completed can the next come to be.
In the first place, some goods cannot concurrently exist. A simple analogy suffices: if I marry Joe, it means I de facto cannot marry Larry, who, for the sake of argument, we’ll say I was meant to be with. Now, if I PARTICULARLY LIKED Joe at some point, then the unfortunate and ineluctable result of my breakup with Joe was gut-wrenching pain and a few months of sleepless nights and crappy mornings. But that gut-wrenching pain is merely an inescapable byproduct of the process of sloughing off the lesser to give way to the greater. Platitudinously but truly, one might as well wish for rainbows without rain as life without human suffering. Nor is it evidence of cosmic cruelty if the universe steers us toward the toys on Christmas morning when we are silly enough to prefer the cardboard boxes they came in.
Moreover, the experience of joy is heightened almost solely by way of context and contrast. Nothing is more pitiable than the soul who, as Teddy Roosevelt once put it, “neither enjoys much nor suffers much, because he dwells in that grey twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.” If you have not suffered, you have not existed; if you have not known pain, you cannot appreciate joy; and if you have not at some point in your life raised your voice and berated a mysterious, ineffable fate in the throes of anguish, then you have never really known life at all. As a dear friend of mine once wrote to me in a Valentine’s Day poem after some painful losses in my life: “For those who suffer most are those who know/ Who touch the deepest depths of life/ Whose hearts are sensitive unto the light/ The gentlest, subtlest undulations of the cosmic orchestra.”
I am reminded of so many concrete instances in my own life: I hung up my ballet shoes at seven because I thought I was “too fat,” ending my brief and inauspicious career as a prima ballerina, but freeing myself to discover my love for the stage and the pen; my baby brother died at five months in utero in late 1993, but had he lived, I would never have known my baby sister and the love of my life, born in mid-1994; the weekend I was supposed to get married (got dumped six weeks before the wedding) I took the greatest and most memorable road trip of my life, brimming with fun and hilarity; the loss of a job I loved dearly was once a necessary prerequisite to being with a man I loved dearly; and even tonight, the anguish of the preceding days led me into a pub in blind despair and resulted in a beneficial and enjoyable night chatting with a cheerful and kind stranger.
Joy and pain are both indispensable components of the vast spectrum of human experience, and both lend a little color and life to the drab miserable everyday. I’m reminded of the Twilight Zone episode about the gambler who dies and goes on to the afterlife, where he continually wins and wins at the slots until he gets bored out of his mind with perpetually hitting the jackpot. “I’m a little disappointed in heaven,” he tells his companion, a little peevish. His companion — who turns out to be the Old Scratch himself — bares his teeth and leers, “What made you think this was heaven?”
In other words, life is a trade-off. Embrace it, or you’re going to waste a lot of time chasing rainbow gold without an umbrella.