Love's Contradiction: Embracing Joy and Sorrow

Feb 18, 2014 | Updated Apr 19, 2014

To lack joy, to be without an effervescent delight in the sheer fact of being alive with others, is an immense impoverishment. We know this truth in the marrow because we who have been deprived of joy by loss or injury have felt the absence of a vital sap that kept us flourishing. Joy is as essential to life as a wag to a dog's tail.

But those who are alive, awake, and attentive live precariously because they are sure to be captured by profound sorrow. To be genuinely alive is to be vulnerable. To be is vulnerable is to register in our soft tissues the pain of the world.

We live in a time in which the world -- not only the human world -- but the whole living world is dying, not solely by virtue of its innate mortality, but by the force of our ecocidal violations. Such knowledge brings with it an unremitting grief.

Joy and sorrow, delight and melancholy -- this is the double and warring temper of a feelingful life, especially in this fragile historical moment.

Love is the voluntary embrace of this unbearable contradiction. Love labors stubbornly to cultivate joy so that we have the wherewithal to work for the world's well being. But love, at least the genuine article, does not seek joy by refusing an excruciating openness to the suffering of the world's wounded and even of the world's wounding. Love is a dancing and crucified Messiah.

The work of spiritual life is the labor of deepening our capacity for joy while simultaneously deepening our capacity to feel the suffering of others. Although it seems inconceivable that any heart-mind can tolerate the co-presence of intense joy and suffering, the ancient and living wisdoms teach that it is not only possible but necessary. They say it is our human vocation and destiny.

The Bodhisattva is an ocean of compassion who is both entirely open to the world's suffering but is nonetheless also a wellspring of joy and laughter. The Christ is the joyful savior who turns water into wine, and the one whose open and crucified arms embrace the world's pain and suffers its violence. He is a man stricken by grief.

At the heart of this mysterious invitation to joy and to grief -- love's calling to embrace both --is the recognition that human life is an infinite openness. The human being is openness to relationship, an openness to the other. If we become what we are made to be, we will sense and taste the fecund and inexhaustible beauty of the world. But, we shall also suffer the great harm and injury that the world's creatures visit upon each other. It is impossible to have one without the other.

Hence, the one who is open to the world will necessarily be vulnerable to both beauty and pain. Authentic joy comes at a cost and is perforce a wounded joy; it is the risen Christ whose hands and feet still bear the marks of crucifixion, and whose pierced side remains eternally open to the world entire.