Making Space for the Joy and the Grief by Christy Croft


Christy CroftLast week, I made a day trip on short notice to fly with a friend to Orlando. As we said our goodbyes, my friend encouraged me to try to catch an earlier flight to avoid arriving home too late in the evening. I briefly considered it, but instead grabbed a late lunch in the Orlando airport, sat down with a journal, and spent some time writing. It had been a stressful few weeks, and I relished the opportunity to put my heart to paper, to allow the pen to help me sort out the mix of emotions that were rolling over me.

Later that evening, during a two-hour layover in Baltimore, my friend called. “Are you home yet?” they asked, hopeful.

“No. I’m in Baltimore.”

“Oh no,” they said. “I was hoping you’d be home by now.”

I reassured them that I chose to keep the later flight in spite of being tired and overwhelmed, and began to tell them many of the joys of my afternoon. The Southwest boarding agent had been the best stand-up comic I’d seen in years, I had a cozy nap on the flight to Baltimore, and had been able to watch the sunset from a big rocking chair in the airport, a sliver of moon hanging crisp in the dimming pink sky over geometric rows of runway lights. Don’t misread me – a full day spent in airports and airplanes was not my ideal, and the day’s travels carried their own stressors. But what stuck out was the joy and meaning – the cathartic passion of writing, the belly-shaking laughter of a boarding agent whose silliness knew no limits, and the stunning visual of lights and sky and reflected nature dancing the sun into its sleep. The day was powerful. The day was vivid.

I’ve been thinking lately about grief – about broken expectations and heartache and fear and anxiety and all that we’re told those things are supposed to mean or be to us. There’s an underlying current of thought in American culture, put there by hundreds of years of bootstrap theology, patriarchal models that privilege mind over body, and positive thinking pop psychology, that tries to convince us that grief cannot coexist with joy, that humor cannot coexist with sadness, or that anger cannot coexist with love. We are told that these things cannot go together, and thus we must choose, pick which one we want to give power in our lives, as if the experience of one emotion, of one way of being, precludes all others… as if allowing ourselves to feel deeply, to be present in our bodies and their experiences, is to betray the cultural expectation to be okay, always okay… as if allowing ourselves to feel regret means we have no gratitude, or questioning shows insufficient faith in a loving God’s goodness.

For the typical person, the pressures weigh heavy even on a good day. For someone who struggles with chronic illness or mental health, the incessant pressure to choose between grief and joy (and let’s be clear, you are meant to choose joy) can itself be debilitating, when your grief also wants to be held, acknowledged, and heard. For someone who lives under any one of a series of marginalizations or oppressions, whether based on race, gender, class, or something else, the pressure to be happy, always happy, as evidence of your spiritual evolution is experientially dissonant, bordering on (if not explicitly) gaslighting.

Photograph of sunset view from airportIn The Spiral Dance, Starhawk writes: “Much of reality – the welfare system, war, the social roles ordained for women and men – are created collectively and can only be changed collectively. One of the clearest insights of feminism is that our struggles are not just individual, and our pain is not private pain; it is created by ways in which our culture treats women as a class. Sexism, racism, poverty, and blind accident do shape people’s lives, and they are not created by their victims.” There is no shame in acknowledging that we have not solved our own oppression through the power of our spiritual intensity, even as we use a variety of modalities to heal or to ease our adjustments to life’s unpredictability, and participate in actions to create structural change.

Saba Mahmood has written extensively about the problem of equating agency with resistance, of acknowledging agency only to the extent that the subject pursues a Western model of individualistic freedom. Similarly, there is a problem in equating a “good life” with positivity, of acknowledging someone’s inherent value or success only to the extent that they embody Western ideals of success within a capitalist system and ever-present joy and contentment with the trajectory of their lives.

The reality is that there is often joy in parallel with grief, as bittersweet memories bring us optimistic hope as well as tenderness over things that could have happened, but didn’t. There is often love in our hurt, the friend who holds our hand through the loss of a dream and the ensuing re-visioning of what our lives might become. There is often laughter in our tears, desire in our letting go, and the unexpected pink of sunset clouds lifting a sliver of moon high above dazzling runway lights at the setting of a long, busy, and emotionally full day.

Starhawk also writes: “While we can’t stop the earth from turning, we can choose to experience each revolution so deeply and completely that even the dark becomes luminous.” I’m still unconvinced that every experience is to be savored. Some pains are too great, some wounds too deep, to give thanks for them unconditionally. But even in the processing of those pains, there will be moments of joy, slivers of hope, waves of peace and healing. For each binary our culture shoves us into, demanding we choose and choose wisely, we can stay planted. We are big enough to hold them all – joy and grief, love and loss, pain and elation, and the new beginning that leans gently against the closure of what we thought we knew.

Christy Croft is a writer, teacher, and healer whose interfaith, personal spiritual practice is inspired by nature, informed by science, and grounded in compassion. She is a graduate student whose current liberal studies program has focused on religion and social justice. She has facilitated safe and sacred space for over twenty years, as a suicide hotline counselor, doula, rape crisis companion, support group facilitator, minister, mentor, mother, and friend. Her research interests are ever-evolving and include spirituality, new religious movements, religiosity and popular culture, compassion, trauma, gender, sexuality, and intimacy, and she sometimes blogs at The Sacred Loom.

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Categories: Spiritual Journey

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14 replies

  1. “There’s an underlying current of thought in American culture, put there by hundreds of years of bootstrap theology, patriarchal models that privilege mind over body, and positive thinking pop psychology, that tries to convince us that grief cannot coexist with joy, that humor cannot coexist with sadness, or that anger cannot coexist with love.”

    This is a powerful statement and one we need to attend to because it is impossible to live in this culture without being affected by this “either or reality”

    Like you I do not believe that all wounds are to be opportunities for gratitude. Some ARE too great. However, there are moments of joy that go parallel with pain, and we don’t want to miss them.

    Thank you for this post.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Sara! I think I tend to be resistant to binaries in general, because usually they don’t reflect the complexity of the reality I see.

      I like the way you framed not missing the moments of joy that flow with pain. Sometimes, it’s easy to get bogged down in our grief, but there are sometimes those sweet moments in grief’s midst that make it less overwhelming, more meaningful.

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  2. Yes! Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Your essays seem to leave me wanting to give you a hug and say, “yes, me, too” because I resonate with them to such a great degree. This one is no exception to that.

    When you state that, “I’m still unconvinced that every experience is to be savored. Some pains are too great, some wounds too deep, to give thanks for them unconditionally.” — for me, the key aspects are savoring and unconditional gratitude. These, too, lead us into false choice, yes? I may not savor an experience, but can acknowledge its depth and potential for growth; I may not give thanks unconditionally, because if I did, how could I full realize each component?

    I feel that knowing the complex blend of our own elemental natures helps us to embrace what at first may seem contradictory and give the impression of having to choose either/or instead of allowing for both/and. For instance, my nature is primarily earth & air — an often troublesome blend. :)

    Thank you for this piece! Blessings!

    P.S. Starhawk’s “Spiral Dance” was my very first introductory book into women’s spirituality, paganism, and the Goddess, so I retain a deep connection to her spiritual work.

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  4. This is a beautifully written explanation of the power we gain by acknowledging the fullness of our life experiences. Spiritual feminism as you have expressed it provides validation and inspiration. Many thanks for your message which is especially important in these times full of tension and inequality as well as blossoming and finding voice.

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    • Thank you, Elizabeth! I feel like if we are going to experience the fullness of life, we are also right to claim it and its insights and power.

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      • Absolutely. I would add that expressing these insights and letting others know the power you gain from having a full range of experiences and valuing multiple emotional reactions is so important. That’s why I am so glad you wrote your column. Thanks again.

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  5. Deeply felt, beautifully written post, thanks so much Christy Croft .

    “Even the dark becomes luminous” is an essential part of the yin-yang of Taoism. The interplay of light and shadow was a deep quest of Emily Dickinson’s poetry also. I love the subtlety of this stanza by ED:

    His Labor is a Chant —
    His Idleness — a Tune —
    Oh, for a Bee’s experience
    Of Clovers, and of Noon!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Sarah, I always enjoy the ways you are able to tie Taoism to my writing — it means a lot of me to have additional layers added to my understanding, and the teachings always resonate strongly with my own. Thank you for sharing that.

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  6. Yes! “We are big enough to hold them” all. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. So true! We are always expected to react in a particular way. If we fail, we are told to accept it with grace. If we have lost someone, we must be solemn. But even when we are in pain, especially for a long time, we do have happy moments in them. When my dad had cancer, we didn’t always put on a sulky face and walk around. We had our share of little joyful moments as well, but then some people would question how we could be happy when our father is unwell. I do feel that sometimes, we try to control too many things in life and emotions, at least must be spared.

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  8. Such a powerful, and hopeful, reading. It struck a much needed chord with me. Thanks.

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  9. I feel that knowing the complex blend of our own elemental natures helps us to embrace what at first may seem contradictory and give the impression of having to choose either/or instead of allowing for both/and.
    P.S. Starhawk’s “Spiral Dance” was my very first introductory book into women’s spirituality, paganism, and the Goddess, so I retain a deep connection to her spiritual work.

    Like

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