...joy - touching the angel's hand

It feels a little strange for me to be speaking up for joy (as if I am betraying deep allegiances and contracts with my tribe). But I will take the risk, hoping all of us can loosen our habitual leanings and open to the grace and beauty that runs like a rich vein through everything. I was prompted to write this because an old school-friend I have not seen for thirty years asked me the other day if my default state in life was gloom (given all my words about sadness), and it is not. Less than ever. So here is a little bit about ‘uncovering a capacity for joy’, inspired by spring, by buoyancy, and by one of the loveliest texts about this I know from Fra Giovanni:

CHRISTMAS LETTER:  

 I am your friend, and my love for you goes deep.  
 The gloom of the world is but a shadow. Behind it, yet within our reach, is joy. There is radiance and glory in darkness, could we but see.  And to see, we have only to look. I beseech you to look! 
Life is so generous a giver. But we, judging its gifts by their covering, cast them away as ugly or heavy or hard. Remove the covering, and you will find beneath it a living splendor, woven of love by wisdom, with power. Welcome it, grasp it, and you touch the angel’s hand that brings it to you. 
Everything we call a trial, a sorrow or a duty, believe me, that angel’s hand is there. The gift is there and the wonder of an overshadowing presence. Your joys, too, be not content with them as joys. They, too, conceal diviner gifts. 
Life is so full of meaning and purpose, so full of beauty beneath its covering, that you will find earth but cloaks your heaven. Courage then to claim it; that is all! But courage you have, and the knowledge that we are pilgrims together, wending through unknown country home. 

 

Many of you will be familiar with this beautiful piece of writing. I first came across it when it was sent to me about twenty years ago by my friend Kieran. We are still friends, and both of us, in that time, have become better, if such a thing is possible, at bearing suffering and becoming available to joy.  

 

Yet on my worst days, Fra Giovanni’s Letter irritated me – for its apparent casualness about pain, it’s insistence that joy lies near and may be easily found. (such ‘good news’ feels almost offensive when our minds loop in distress and our souls congeal in gloom). And yet it is a hard text to really reject, because it’s tone is so lovely: It is a passionate and personal expression of deep friendship, imbued with conviction, faith and encouragement.  

Expanding our Mood Repertoire ;-)

' The gloom of the world is but a shadow.

Behind it, yet within our reach, is joy...'

For those of us allied to gloom, how may we see beyond it? How can we heed Giovanni's invitation and make sure that, if joy is available, we learn to taste it? How can we make sure we don’t get stuck in one ‘genre’ of human experience and miss out on the more buoyant, light and beautiful side of things?

This notion of genre is so important – and our subtle loyalty to tragedy. Those of us who have an affinity with suffering so easily get trapped there. I love what Adam Phillips has to say about this preference for particular genres: ‘part of [our] predicament that [we are] trapped in a specific genre...unable to move freely among the genres available, [our] farces, say, are all experienced as tragedies…’ This is the natural leaning for many of us - to loop within a dominant atmosphere of masochistic or fatalistic lament, identified and bonded with a notion that life is a place where something is, and always will be 'wrong'.

How do we evolve beyond this: loosen and learn to inhabit other genres - Where is our joy? Where are our comedies - our romances? Where is the ‘radiance and glory' of which Giovanni speaks?  

Joy arises on the cusp of our capacity to be touched freshly by life - to be surprised. We cannot command 'joy', but we can develop our ability to live in such a way that joy arises more frequently, and registers more fully in us, altering our sense of goodness, abundance and vitality.

Fra Giovanni's line: 'the gloom of the world is but a shadow...behind it, yet within reach, is joy...' captures how joy may often be found 'just behind' or 'inside' an experience that we may be interpreting as difficult or painful.  His assertion that joy is 'within reach' even in the midst of apparent gloom, asks us to look more closely, to see 'what else' is happening, which may be evading our notice. 

The Art of Dropping Bias:

Giovanni is not a bad guide here: his answers seem to lie in Looking Deeper, Receptivity, and Courage. And I would add to this – when we flounder - good and loving others in whom we have faith, who reveal horizons and capacities obscure to us.   

Looking Deeper

empowers us to engage with rather than ‘manage’ our distress. Learning ‘to look’ differently is a skill we can develop, and when we do, our transformation is authentic, our capacity to ‘see through’ what once seemed opaque states – to a more light and lucid emptiness becomes possible. We come to see moments untarnished by bias, beauty uninterrupted by dread. 

Joy is also often found when we slow down. This is because - while the mind can experience excitement - joy is often more sensual and subtle.  We may be transported by presence, by a quality of calm, by a moment of perception of beauty or love, by an unanticipated look of happiness in a child or stranger.

Receptivity and Courage

Sometimes we are so committed to believing our life is hard, we cannot taste the lightness or the beauty when it offers itself to us. We may be, as the Indian teacher Papaji said, 'neck deep in grace' - surrounded by bounty, yet committed elsewhere.  Something in us is shy to fully take in life's generosity to us - I find myself slow to commit to words the glorious goodness I have known, the spectacular loveliness of humans and things I have been blessed by. They don't quite fit my well-worn template; they embarrass me a little, I fear ridicules. And so, like Michael Eigen, despair feels more reliable and steadfast. I dwell more comfortably among the wounded, I have ‘a penchant for destruction, a taste for wounds… a gravitational pull toward injury. The black hole suits [us] well…’ 

 ‘Remove their covering, and you will find beneath it a living splendour…’ 

And yet, this space of struggle is never a complete picture. Can we move freely, at least sometimes, to life beyond the veil of pain: can we bear witness to the taste of beauty, the feel of grace and the sense of a benign and loving angel’s hand? 

When we have the courage and clarity to risk seeing freshly, an alternate world opens. In place of the ‘heart of darkness’, lies subtle, alternate life. Beneath and behind the veil of recalcitrant thought lies a living body: Vivid cellular movement, sensual presence, freshness and flow. This is the rich vein of life moving in us, beneath and beyond identification, bias and ego, like an underground stream of revelation.  It is often a source of enormous vitality and joy. 

Real Presences – Human Warmth

Yet most of us need encouragement to learn to dwell there: support in our suffering and encouragement sometimes to release it. In this, few things are as soothing or supportive of our well-being as human warmth, as capable of transforming our tragedies to comedies and our disasters to unlikely romances.

We need and long for one another more than we often care to say. Central to the beauty of this letter is that it is written with such intense love, and from a place of ‘having been there’ - not from a hierarchy of any kind, but from the position that ‘we are all pilgrims together, wending through unknown country home’. 

So let's find our way of seeing behind or beyond our particular biases and veils of suffering, and become receptive to the grace (when it comes) of the angel's hand, the generous whispers of spring, the taste of something more sublime and beautiful than we are used to letting define things...

The core question when it comes to joy is one of freshness and repetition: Are we available to be touched in the present, by life’s unfoldment before us, within us, or are we mentally preoccupied in a way that obscures our contact with Being?

 

the recovery of disappointment

Living is strife and torment, disappointment and love and sacrifice, golden sunsets and black storms. I said that some time ago, and today I do not think I would add one word.
Laurence Olivier

I like Olivier's words for placing disappointment alongside love, and sunsets alongside black storms. This excerpt from my mood writing looks at how some of us are inclined to deny our experiences of disappointment, why we may do this (with thanks to Dr Freud), and makes the case for living through it more freely and honouring its messages. I've called it 'the recovery of disappointment' because disappointment can be rich and vitalizing when we let it reach us, but we have often learned not to feel it... 

 

In some sense, disappointment is always a story of failure. What we longed for did not come. Some people can digest this, live on to express a new desire, to fight another day. For others it is an occasion of shame and despair: an utterly ordinary human experience we cannot bear to feel. We simply feel too hopeless or too hurt. And so we like to pretend it is not there.

Of course our resistance to disappointment has its reasons: Disappointment hurts. It is blunt, immediate and stark. It does – temporarily – threaten harmony. It does – momentarily - make us feel bad. Acknowledging it recalls us to difficult things: a sense of failure, hurt. These seem a bad idea to take in.

The truth is, it need not be a threat, yet we act as if it is. We ‘naturally’ contract against disappointment, becoming in the process, estranged from ourselves. This takes place all the time: small, unacknowledged disappointments accumulate inside us. We resist them in the attempt to ward off pain. Yet each time we do, we express a lack of faith that we can live through it fruitfully.  We can, but we may not know this yet.

What makes so ordinary an experience become so toxic, and why does it matter?  To understand this territory, and what it’s implications are, it's helpful to return to Freud’s sense of the origin of melancholia; because the inability to live through disappointment well lies at its core. Freud proposed that in response to disappointment in a loved person, we retreated as children from the central relationship of our lives. We felt let down, but did not have the resilience or capacity to express this. Instead we turned inward,  managing our despair through a blend of repression, withdrawal and self-attack. This gave birth to two patterns inside us: the feeling of disappointment was seen to be dangerous, and was rejected; and we could not bear to acknowledge that we felt ‘failed’ by those who mattered to us.This established significant and damaging precedents founded in a false resilience and premature 'independence': We neither communicate our disappointment to others, nor allow ourselves to experience it within ourselves.

Both habits die hard. Many of us stay loyal to this early shaping, remaining, as adults, inclined to respond as if our hurt and disappointment are not there. We become accomplished at denial; we go on as if nothing has happened. But inside, behind the scenes, despairs accumulate; our hope falters, our bonds weaken; our relationships remain partial and insecure.

“But there were worse things than disappointment, and I'd lived through several of them already.”

― R.J. Anderson, Ultraviolet

Anderson’s words remind us of how bearable disappointment is. This is important. We can actually bear it. But we may not know this yet.  I was 25 before I actually noticed disappointment as a possible feeling I could have.

discovering disappointment - reluctantly

I am 25, away with a friend for a few days near the coast. With her, there is nowhere to hide. My pretence that I am happy meets such incredulous eyes that I cannot bear to be near her. I take walks to get away, but the beauty around me does not register. These are causelessly sad days imbued with an inexplicable devastation, a mood that hovers and bears thickly down. One day, on a walk, half-way down the beach, amid the mood, a word begins to form....Disappointment: the word leaves me reeling. Ridiculous though it may seem, amid frequent unhappiness, I have never thought to use this word about myself. I do not remember saying, to anyone, ever ‘I am disappointed’ - about anything. I always pretended I had never hoped for more. I swallowed hope. Now the feeling floods me.

Until then, my pride was too strong. I had always had a category for sadness; when low, it became a natural blanket over everything. Sadness doesn’t accuse anyone, and it is not particular. It is a vague and comfortable fog, implicating no-one but us.  Wehn we are sad, we can just hide out there, and flounder, invisibly, the contours of our hurt and hope obscured. Anger, disappointment, hurt: all are relational. They make us far more vulnerable.

What if being disappointed is not necessarily a depletion, but a return? What if it can recall us to ourselves? Disappointment has a function and a message. Do we have the capacity and courage to feel disappointed when we are - to let it live and breathe a little, within our bodies and minds and among others?

As adults, letting in disappointment seems to carry three core threats:

  • to our mood: will feeling this bring us down?
  • to our self-image: is preserving our pride is more important than uncovering the truth of our  experience;
  • to our relationships – are we preserving a false harmony at the expense of some imperfect, but genuine contact.

Disappointment in relationship

Many of us pretend we’re not disappointed with others when we are. It is tempting to want it not to have happened, to move swiftly on. The continuations of our bonds seem to demand that. But there is a problem. The more we deny our true feelings, the less we entrust ourselves to others; the self we share grows thin, the foundation of our bonds becomes precarious, we begin to feel lonely and unknown, though this is precisely what we dread.

We are up against primitive forces: our childhood conviction that disappointment cannot be borne ‘between us’. (We may also sense that the raw pain of it cannot be borne within). This pressurizes us to deny an inevitable experience: we don’t learn to feel disappointment naturally as part of life, and we don’t process our disappointment in ways that could protect us.

Relationship is invariably a field of hope and disappointment, damage and repair. The more freely we can bear all this: the more buoyant and resilient we are, the freer  to engage deeply with others. But for those of us whose bonds are tentative - who may have felt rejected or failed in early life - there is often a history of hope hurting too much, so we allow hopelessness to form in place of pain. We minimize desire; we are subdued.

As we learn to be disappointed in ordinary, bearable ways - rather than see it as proof of our failure, or the fact that no-one cares for us - a relaxation and settling can occur. We allow ourselves to be affected, and not pretend otherwise.