In her essay “Joy” from The New York Review of Books, Zadie Smith distinguishes between pleasure and joy. Eating a pineapple popsicle, she says, is pure pleasure. Joy is much different. “The thing no one ever tells you about joy is that it has very little real pleasure in it. And yet if it hadn’t happened at all, at least once, how would we live?” She walks through moments of pure joy in her life, and ends with reflecting on the fierce love she has for her partner, children and pets, tying mourning to joy. For we lose the ones we love, or are lost to them. When we love, we risk the pain that comes with the loss of love. We risk the pain that comes with the joy.
It hurts just as much as it is worth. What an arrangement. Why would anyone accept such a crazy deal? Surely if it were sane and reasonable we would every time choose a pleasure over a joy, as animals themselves sensibly do.
It can be easy to talk about pleasure, think about it, seek it out. It’s easy to post pictures of pleasurable food or an enjoyable vacation on social media and comment on other people’s pleasure, too until we think that pleasure should be the focus, the stuff life is made of. Joy, pure joy, is a different thing. Recently, I have been struck by how much love can hurt. It’s agony. I love my little boy so intensely, for example, that it’s actually painful. He is my joy.
It hurts as much as it is worth. That line came to me, again, on Sunday. We invited a young man named Adam to share his story with the youth at church. He is a person who has a tendency toward depression. For a stretch a time before he sought treatment, he had suicidal thoughts daily. He explained the feeling of depression so vividly and said, “We have to talk about this. We have to figure out how to admit to each other that we suffer. We all suffer.” He used to spend more time than not unhappy, until it seemed that exiting life was the only real option to get relief. Slowly, with help, he was able to admit that life hurt, but it was worth sticking around for. The room became a thin space. Folks cried. We heard him. This is a man who knows suffering and joy.
When we dare to be alive in this life, we will know joy and suffering, love and loss. Church is one community I’ve found where I can share my suffering and joy. For that, I am grateful.