Tragedy and Joy: A Most Painful Oxymoron

After the recent horrific events in Newtown, Connecticut, I was not surprised to find client after client expressing overwhelming sadness. Suddenly, the trauma that impacted previously unknown families cascaded across state lines right into the homes and hearts of every parent on the planet.

Gut-wrenching anxiety soared.

What if it happens here?

                How can I protect my children?

                Should I send them to school?

                How can I hug my children tight enough to make sure nothing bad every happens to them?

                How will I ever let them go anywhere again?

                I cannot wrap my head around such agonizing pain.

                I cannot watch the news. I cannot listen to the details.

                We are not safe anywhere?


Each client told the same story with different words. I could feel the pangs of powerlessness, the uncertainty in their hearts and the terror with each breath.

The panic was palpable.

How can we possibly reconcile such madness?

Yet, we are taught by great spiritual leaders, that it is important to learn from loss, to grow from pain, to turn negatives into positives. Yes, but is that really possible when the loss is too great? Isn’t it true that there are some catastrophic events that are simply too unbearable to comprehend, too atrocious to make sense out of? It seems that way, sometimes.

So we just sit and feel bad.

To be honest, I often feel a strange sense of obligation to feel bad when confronted by a tragedy that does not affect me personally. I privately worry that if we turn off the TVs prematurely, we somehow dishonor the grieving families . This is a function of my own distorted perspective as a second-generation survivor of the Holocaust, which keeps me stuck somewhere between incredible anguish and empathy in response to any large-scale tragedy. It is a throbbing pain that is all too familiar to those of us with acute sensitivities.

While listening to the endless questions that had no answers, and trying, along with my clients, to find meaning in all of this suffering, I remembered the teaching of Susan Talve, the fabulously inspirational Rabbi of Central Reform Congregation in St Louis. Susan tells the story of when she officiated at a wedding shortly after the death of her mother. The effort to balance her deep grief with the wonderful celebration surrounding her, inspired her to share this lesson to us all: While she didn’t feel like dancing, the observation and appreciation of the delight on the faces of those around her and feeling the love in her heart was powerfully healing.

Her story teaches us that it is the not sadness we are obliged to experience when others are suffering, it is the joy.

While it may seem counter-intuitive,  I have learned that, in addition to my instinctive reaction to join in the immediate grief response (which may or may not be helpful, and I advise against it if at all possible), it then becomes our task, our responsibility, to ourselves and to the sufferers, to experience and spread joy.

Joy? In the face of such incomprehensible suffering?

Most definitely.

You see, if we are all sad, and continue to worry and perseverate about the million “what-if” scenarios,  we add nothing constructive to the already shattered attempt to make sense and move on. If we wallow in the hopelessness, which is so tempting to do, we broaden the scope of the already pervasive anxiety. The air around us becomes laden with despair.  And that, does no one, any good at all.

The world needs more joy when there is widespread suffering. I am not talking about the pleasure of seeing a great movie on a Sunday afternoon. Nor am I talking about the enjoyment of a delicious piece of dark chocolate after a scrumptious meal.  Here, the joy I refer to is the unmitigated joy that comes from the power of connectedness. The appreciation of nature, the generosity of spirit, the blessing of our families, laughter with loved ones, nourishment from friends, the tolerance of differences, and random acts of  genuine kindness.

The victims, the families of the victims, and those of who are many miles away over-identifying with their unimaginable pain, need to watch others dance. The balance that comes from finding joy amid the darkness, is how we begin to heal.

Yes, love your children. Do not feel guilty if you are able to find and feel joy and love. Embrace it. Experience the healing energy that comes from loving each other and share it with strangers. Pay it forward. Extend the joy as far as you can, then, let the contagious nature of joy carry it even further.

Maybe some of it will reach Newtown. Maybe not.

But learning how to find joy when there is so much suffering is a skill that we must all continue to cultivate.

It is not easy to do. It is, however, essential that we try.



Thanks to Susan and Miriam. 

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