The Fine Line Between Joy and Despair
I married my grief, owned it, and lived it.
Posted Jul 14, 2010
I was in a workshop a while back where we were invited to feel- really feel- our despair. This did not sound like fun for me. I do a really good job of staying positive almost all of the time, even when I’m feeling shitty. I was raised to be a good little Pollyanna, always seeing the light in every person, the opportunity in every tragedy, the rainbow in every storm. It has served me well for many years, but at what cost?
We were challenged to go there with a researcher’s curiosity, just to see what might come up. So, good little straight A student that I am, I went there.
I found myself exploring some dark, ugly places that I’ve long repressed. I faced my deepest shame, my biggest failures, my darkest fears- and met them there, in the safe, sacred company of a community of women doing the same. It got pretty nasty.
Imagine a roomful of women going there. Women were screaming that they had been raped, sobbing over abortions, divorces, and death, and expressing childhood rage at having been abandoned by a parent. We were pissed about jobs that sucked us dry, men who broke our hearts, dreams lost, brothers who died, cancers that robbed us of body parts, and precious time squandered. Head-banger music and songs of woe, in addition to the tears of the other women in the workshop, helped us wallow in the pits of our depression, anger, resentment, bitterness, sadness, fear, and grief. We wailed, smashed our fists on the floor, cursed the heavens, and curled up in fetal positions.
Red-eyed and puffy with a throbbing headache, I became my despair- and suddenly, we were one. I married my grief, owned it, and lived it.
Then, in this dark, ugly place, I gazed into the equally bloodshot and swollen eyes of Ellen, another woman in my workshop, and the side of my mouth snuck up just the teensiest bit. Ellen caught my half smile and her eyes glistened, not with tears, but with a newfound twinkle. I felt a giggle erupt from deep in my gut, but I suppressed it, thinking it would be utterly inappropriate to bust out with a giggle when everyone else was so miserable.
Then Ellen did it. She laughed. LOUD. Lusty. And suddenly, the floodgates opened and I was laughing too, cracking up, hysterical, maniacal laughter, just like when you’re eight and your little brother makes a fake fart in church and your mother gives you the look but you just can’t control yourself. Yeah- just like that.
When another woman made eye contact with me, I tried to hide my laughter, but it erupted again, and suddenly, she too was laughing. Before you knew it, this room full of despairing women were all laughing, and this wasn’t just any laugh. This was full-on, coming from the gut, jubilant, spirited, tickled Pink belly laughing. This went on for…I don’t know…ages.
And then I was spent. I felt like all the juice had been sapped from me, like a young coconut sucked dry with a straw. But in that dried out, depleted, exhausted place arose a tingle that became a vibration, which escalated into a pulsing, throbbing electricity that ran through me. I couldn’t figure out what it was- and then it struck me. What overcome me was a sense of pure, radiant aliveness.
That’s when I realized that joy and despair are not opposite ends of some proverbial spectrum. They are sisters on the path to being radically alive- and they are not so far apart from each other. From the pits of despair, I was suddenly able to access a level of joy so deep and profound- in the absence of any triumph that might otherwise cause you to feel joyful.
Feeling it all
This lead to a revelation for me. Maybe our darkness is nothing to fear. Maybe we need not avoid journeying into the depths of despair. Maybe it is in the pit that we access our joy. Maybe joy and pain are so intimately connected that we must truly experience one in order to know the other. If we fear our grief and anger, we blunt our giddy, giggly joy. And who would want that?
What do you think? Have you ever had an experience like this, where utter despair opens up into complete and rapturous joy? Would you be willing to go there- to just live in your darkness, to BE your shadow, to own your shame, your regrets, your pissed off, strung-out, meanest, lamest inner bitch?
What if that’s where your mojo lies?
Dr. Lissa Rankin is an OB/GYN physician, an author, a nationally-represented professional artist, and the founder of Owning Pink, an online community committed to building authentic community and empowering women to get- and keep- their "mojo". Owning Pink is all about owning all the facets of what makes you whole- your health, your sexuality, your spirituality, your creativity, your career, your relationships, the planet, and YOU. Dr. Rankin is currently redefining women’s health at the Owning Pink Center, her practice in Mill Valley, California. She is the author of the forthcoming What's Up Down There? Questions You'd Only Ask Your Gynecologist If She Was Your Best Friend (St. Martin's Press, September 2010).