Joy and despair are interconnected. You cannot understand darkness without seeing the light, cannot reach the soaring high of a mountaintop without the hypoxic slog up the trail. For those humans who feel everything, there is some hardwired need to earn a slice of goodness with a heaping serving of suffering.
This equation is not exactly learned—it is something deeper, a primal understanding that joy is not core to survival, but perhaps the momentary elation of a successful hunt or gather is. It is this same sense that makes art such a noble endeavor, for creativity does not meet any of our biological needs.
Then again, neither does leaving the comfort and security of our well-constructed homes for harebrained adventures, journeys deep into the woods and deeper into the mind. In the desire to know oneself better, voluntary suffering is the most core tenet, the catalyst for rejecting ease and orienting towards enlightenment. That ever-receding green light across the bay, a beacon of an ideal, better chased than caught. For once the striving is replaced with having, we find ourselves fumbling like the bear realizing that the porcupine doesn’t make for a good meal. The progress addict is leery of contentment, for it threatens the need to constantly be falling forwards.
In the confusing and involuntary rush down the human timeline, the experiences of adulthood sneak up on us, feeling underwhelming and overwhelming in surprising ways. We cannot know how much the mockingbird meant to us until we see it through wrinkled eyes, hear its irregular chattering through well-worn ears, find that our native terroir is responsible for far more of our taste than expected when we ran far and fast away from it. Cannot imagine how simply we slide into another year, pass another milestone which seemed so monumental in the distance and felt so normal in the moment.
Indeed, we cannot grasp that this moment may be as good as it gets, because our survival mechanisms teach us to prepare for the next catastrophe, our restless legs bounce as we seek out the next movement that will mute the deafening silence of stillness. Sitting by the river as the sun sets, it is difficult to truly grasp the joy of being. Even as the perfect moment unfolds, there is more life looming. Joy is simple and still, it does not sting like suffering or level like heartbreak. It is quiet and it takes a strong soul to make space for the silence. Goodness is, and that is what makes it so difficult to hold on to.
Perhaps we are conditioned to associate joy with suffering. Finding the few finest moments to photograph, forming the truest thoughts to write down, witnessing the fleeting alpenglow in the faraway peaks all come from their own toils. Whether it’s indulging the spiraling mind of an artist or putting foot in front of foot for miles on end, it is only with much labor that we bear fruit. If we are lucky, we return with fruit in hand. If we are lost while trying to find it, perhaps the seed will be cast by an admiring biographer, someone who sees themselves in our solipsistic endeavors and italicizes our final realization. And there is always the chance that we won’t find what we’re looking for, which is why it is so important to strive ceaselessly, searching around every bend and in every forgotten tavern.
The ability to find joy in suffering makes the unpredictability of life more bearable, but it also creates a Pavlovian response to things which hurt. It makes it more difficult to accept what is truly good, because we are taught to believe that the harder path is the better one. And while I will always believe this is true, will best relate to people who have chosen the empty and overgrown trail, there is value in pausing to enjoy the view, learning the names of the flowers, sharing the thoughts that cross the ever-thinking mind.