Why Embracing Sorrow Paves Our Way to Joy

“You have the capacity to experience true joy, yet you are equally capable of grieving deeply while holding onto hope.” – Chip Dodd, The Voice of the Heart

We all desire emotional stability. We scour books, seek counsel, meditate, pray, insert whatever it is you do to gain a handle on the needs of the human heart. It can be exhausting. We often live in the spin of emotions which happens simultaneously inside. At times, it can seem like a bit too much to bear. How can we possibly tend to so many feelings at once? As a result, we’ll often turn to things to divert our focus, giving us temporary relief from what’s actually stirring inside of our soul.

I’m an emotional being. There you have it, I said it out loud. I’ve spent a lot of my life wishing away this part of my persona … or at least wishing my emotions weren’t quite so loud. I’ve attempted to put them aside. I’ve desired to become more of a “T” than an “F.” I’ve certainly given it my all to hush my feelings when it comes to decisions and relationships, but I am always sorely disappointed when I’m met with opposition. For me, to completely turn off my emotions is actually an impossibility.

I simply cannot not feel.

In recent months I’ve been learning a bit more about these emotions. I’m learning that they are, in fact, some of our greatest strengths, even though I’ve viewed them as a thorn in my side for quite some time.

We were given feelings to act as a thermometer to our soul and we are hardwired to feel deeply.

Five years ago, my dad was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. A disease that has slowly taken its toll on his physical well-being and, quite frankly, a whole lot more than that. I remember the day I was struck by the reality of his sickness. It knocked the wind out of me. I was home for a visit when I gazed across the room and saw my dad struggling to stand up from his chair. In that moment, I was overcome by the reality of the turning of tables, the cycle of life, whatever you want to call it. My eyes began to well up with tears as I witnessed the man who has taken care of me my entire life suddenly in need of help from his daughter, just to stand up. I witnessed the frustration in his face as he struggled to do what he’s done so effortlessly for so many days. He looked up and said, “Leigh, can you help me?”

My heart sank deep into my chest as I walked across the room to help him stand. I was met by the harsh reality that this was only the beginning of what would be a long journey for him and our family. In recent years, my dad has begun to slowly lose his ability to do simple tasks on his own like feed himself, get out of bed, get into the car, open jars and some days he’s unable to walk from the recliner to the bedroom without help. Regular old daily activities, my dad can no longer do.

I’ve watched my mom’s role evolve from wife to caretaker. I’ve watched her struggle, but, I’ve also witnessed her soar as she strives to love him well, take on his care and navigate the difficult waters of this unchartered territory. I’ve wrestled alongside my sister as we are often overwhelmed with a deep sense of sadness for our dad and experiencing this difficult loss together while trying to pursue personal dreams and continue to live joyfully.

I told a friend a few months ago that my heart was aching because I just longed to grieve. I thought I’d put my finger on my emotional compass perfectly. If only I could be all in the grief process and not have to juggle all of these other emotions simultaneously, then this wouldn’t be so hard, right? How can I possibly live and laugh and experience joy while at the same time experiencing this deep heartache and sadness?  That friend turned to me and said, “You cannot block out joy without blocking out grief. Grief and joy go hand in hand.” It was like I was given permission to feel what I was feeling so torn by.

Later that same week I was brought to tears by the weight of these words:

“Your joy is your sorrow unmasked. The self-same well from which your laughter rises was often times filled with your tears. The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.” – Gibran, Poet

Your joy is your sorrow unmasked. Wait, what? Joy is actually a result of sorrow. The two not only go hand in hand, but they are actually a part of one another. You must feel the depth that pain possesses in order to have the capacity to feel the height of joy. It’s like climbing a 14er or finishing a marathon. It was required of you to trudge all 14,000 ft of elevation and run all 26.2 of those miles before you were released to experience the feeling of accomplishment at the end. The struggle is actually that which makes up the victory.

You must feel the depth that pain possesses in order to have the capacity to feel the height of joy.

We are constantly engaging in a duality of emotion. Some emotions are necessary to experience simultaneously and some are simply a pre-requisite to others. Let’s be honest, along with sorrow comes so many other emotions like anger, sadness, disappointment and fear. Though, we can’t sit around trying to block out the emotions we don’t desire to feel, this will actually do more harm than good. We need them all.

The deeper we feel, the more capacity we are given to carry an even deeper sense of joy to the world.

What is it that’s given you this capacity? A sudden loss, a diagnosis, a phone call which brought you to your knees? Maybe you’ve found yourself trapped in a seemingly never-ending sadness or are enduring the agony of heartbreak. Maybe you’re experiencing a job loss or journeying down the unknown path of some uncontrollable health issues. Though these circumstances are so very difficult, they are actually transforming the core of who you are.

I’m learning to listen to my heart. I’m learning to create space to grieve and to give myself permission to experience joy amidst deep pain. I never imagined I’d have the capacity to feel so much all at once. Some days I have success, some days I just sit and stare out the window because I feel numb to it all.

As we live amidst the tension of sadness for what is, strive to hold on to hope, enjoy the moments we have, and ache for what’s ahead, it can often, simply, seem like too much to bear. That’s because it is. The more I allow my heart to engage in this movement, the more convinced I am that this emotional dance is something supernatural.

Frederick Buechner says it this way, “Laughter and tears come from the same place in the heart, that place deep inside…” Today, I’m choosing to embrace the feeler that I am and allow some of these emotions to live together. The sorrow that has been carved into my being has made room for even more joy to find its home deep down inside the depths of my heart.

By: Leigh Liebmann

Originally published for Darling magazine.