Seven hard days of hiking (and carrying a 60 lbs backpack), through rain and hail, difficult river crossings, a few bear sightings, and lots of thick tundra brush culminated in an ascent up one of the steepest inclines a person could climb without needing special gear. Then there was the moment I looked up and saw the mountains pictured above–the ancient architecture of God standing before me in perfect harmony with itself and its surroundings, carefully crafted–and as yet still being crafted. It was truly the most joyful moment of my life.
But would it have been as joyful had I seen it on the first day of the hike? Would I have appreciated the splendor and majesty of the Unknowable in and through his creation had I flown there by helicopter? I submit that in both cases the answer would be a resounding “No.”
I was asked yesterday by a person I had only just met if I really believed (as I had suggested) that suffering was so essential to the human experience. In my slightly inebriated state I could not give a cogent defense of my position. But I think that suffering is the currency with which we are able to purchase true joy. As long as we understand that all suffering is not equal, and all suffering is not legitimate, and can distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate suffering, then cautiously I say yes, suffering is essential, because it is only through suffering we can emerge into joy. Just as community can only be entered into after going through the stage of emptiness.
Indeed, my most joyful moment would have been dulled without the struggle that preceded it. The joy we have in relating to other people and being in relationships with other people likewise can only be truly achieved after the chaos and pain of realizing we are each unique individuals with conflicting and fragmented perceptions of the world, different wants, different needs. But if we embrace the struggle to transcend those differences, and transcend our egos in the process, then we are able experience the joy of relationship and community.
G.K. Chesterton, in his inimitable work Orthodoxy cites Oscar Wilde’s statement that we cannot appreciate sunsets because we cannot pay for them. Chesterton’s response is “But we can pay for sunsets. We can pay for them by not being Oscar Wilde.”
Hence, joy is derived via negativa, by stripping away, rather than adding to. (Legitimate) Suffering is the friction that helps us strip away all that is unnecessary. When we are climbing the mountains of life, we can only carry with us those things that are absolutely essential, and we must shed the rest. Then when we reach the top, not only do we have the elation of seeing the handiwork of God, but we are able to do so without the weight of those extraneous things that had weighed us down along the way.