In her memoir, The Long Loneliness, Dorothy Day said: “Joy and sorrow, life and death, always so close together!”
My experience mirrors hers. I remember the first time Amanda performed in a little preschool choir—how happy I was to watch her stand with her friends and sing those nursery rhymes, and how sad I was that such simple pleasures do not last—not for the children, and not for their parents.
And, I remember how my eyes filled with tears when Eliot got his first hit in a little league baseball game—I was so glad for him to get on base, so sorry that the world is divided into winners and losers, and so troubled that our kids learn far too early in which category to place themselves.
Joy and sadness often come together. We weep at weddings and laugh at funerals. The borders between grief and gladness are not clear and fixed. We laugh until we cry, cry until we laugh, and laugh to keep from crying.
Life is usually troubled and joyful, simultaneously. I think that’s why the Apostle Paul urged his friends both to “rejoice evermore” and “to pray without ceasing.” Pray about the troubles. Be glad about the joys. In all things, lean into the nearness of God.
Frederick Buechner, in an interview, spoke of the struggle he has, as he ages, not to allow the losses and diminishments he has experienced to color his whole life. He admitted to feeling “shadowy and sad, geriatric . . . Yet I don’t want to write out of the shadowy part of myself, but out of the part that is still young and full of joy.” I am struck by Buechner’s determination to write out of his joy. He’s well acquainted with the shadow of grief, but he’s drawn toward the golden light. He chooses gladness.
We can choose to keep company with gladness, even when it feels natural to side with sadness. I want, though, to be careful with this claim. There are seasons in some people’s lives when clinical depression and/or addiction interfere mightily both with their capacities to perceive reasons for happiness and joy and with the powers of will to open themselves to those reasons, even if they perceive them. I am not suggesting, in the least, that people who need the help of medical treatment for depression should be able to “snap out of it” or “sing out of it” or “pray out of it.”
I am talking, instead, about the choices we make as part of ordinary life—and the bog of depression and the prison of addiction are not the “locations” of ordinary life—life with problems and possibilities, losses and hopes, disappointments and delights.
Some of us can box ourselves into ways of looking at the world which prevent us from choosing gladness, even though we could. We’ve developed a habit of privileging melancholy. It’s a habit we can unlearn. Delight requires a discipline, a discipline. In her story The Wide Net, Eudora Welty said, “The excursion is the same when you go looking for you sorrow as when you go looking for your joy.” The discipline of delight attunes our senses to joy.
We have very limited choices about the pain that comes into our lives, but we do have many more choices about whether we will allow it that pain completely to cloud our vision of the glory and goodness that are just as surely and truly a part of life.
The “discipline” is not new and it is not hard to explain. It is really hard to put into practice, and I am such a novice. It involves letting every experience of life become the raw material for communion with, wrestling with, or resting in, or giving thanks to God. It means praying by living and living by praying.
In Psalm 42 are two beautiful stanzas which I am sure I do not fully understand: