After my last post, I told a few people I was planning a followup that would look past the specific experience of Mother’s Day and look more generally at the experience of suffering and the question of “sensitivity” towards suffering.
What interests me, and has for some time now, is the problem of the pain that comes when a good that one lacks is celebrated.
Obviously, my Mother’s Day post addressed this to some extent. But the example that was most present to me while writing that post has little to do with motherhood. The example that I bear with me, accustomed now but still impossible to ignore, is the privation of the good of a happy marriage.
If you’ve read this blog at all in the last three years, you know I am separated from my husband. Without going into details, I can tell you that this situation–this privation–is deeply painful. It’s a pain that sits at a dull, almost forgettable background ache much of the time, until I move or something moves me and the sharp point of loss and regret stabs afresh, as sharp as when the wound was inflicted.
And while it hurts to see others denigrate, mock, or devalue marriage–though I ache with fellow-feeling whenever a friend, college classmate, online acquaintance, neighbor or other reveals to me their open or hidden marital wounds (and there are so very many more than you realize until you are “someone who can understand” because you’ve been there and are safe to open up to)–what has most often driven me to torrents of grief has been the happiness of others and the celebration of and promotion of marriage.
The spouse-brag FB posts, the anniversary blessings in church, the sappiness of new love and the comfortable resonance of old love all hurt to witness like a toothache that throbs intermittently and demands attention.
I tried to avoid it, for a while. I tried blocking FB posts, avoiding certain blogs, keeping to myself. But that’s a futile task, isn’t it? And love and marriage are everywhere–in the year after I moved back north with my children, there were two family weddings and my parent’s 40th wedding anniversary. I cried at or after all three. And I felt guilty for my tears because I wanted to rejoice with my loved ones. I did rejoice! But my joy was commingled with grief.
I am going somewhere with this, if you’ll bear with me.
What is the cause of this pain? It’s not a re-wounding, the way it is when trauma victims are emotionally transported back to a traumatic event by being exposed to graphic depictions of the same evil. I’m not reliving the events surrounding my separation or the sins and mistakes that damaged my marriage. I am not being reminded of an evil act at all.
I grieve my marriage because I value marriage, and it is right both to value it and to grieve it.
This post, then, is for others who have experienced this pain over the Great Goods enjoyed by others. I don’t have a solution for your pain, because your pain isn’t an evil. My pain isn’t an evil. While the lack of the thing you grieve is almost certainly a result of the fallen, disordered nature of this world, and while the desire to avoid feeling that pain might drive you to unhealthy lengths, the grief itself is the response of a rightly-ordered heart.
It would be wrong to ask that others not rejoice in the Goods we so keenly grieve for ourselves, since we know they are Great Goods that ought to be celebrated. Sometimes, in seeking to escape feeling the pain of a privation we inadvertently fall into new evils like envy or resentment. But the best way I have found to preserve in myself the ability to rejoice for the Great Goods that come into the lives of my loved ones is to cease running from the rightly-ordered pain I feel at my own privation.
Don’t, as I did for some time, berate yourself for the grief that comes mixed in with your joy for others. There is no contradiction between sorrow and joy, suffering and celebration. When you smile through your tears, both your tears and your smile can be a tribute.
The Greater the Good, the greater both the joy and the loss. Your pain is a celebration of the Good from a heart that knows how Great the Good is from knowing the size, shape, and cost of its absence. Let your grief teach your heart how to value the Good that is as well as the Good that is not.