I’ve never understood why I sometimes feel the deepest sadness when I’m overcome by profound beauty or joy. It can be the most ordinary day, out for a walk in the evening, with the heat of the day gone but the sun still warm and a cool breeze carrying the deep green smell of grass mixed with autumn leaves – with the world a small, close, manageable place populated by parents teaching their kids how to kick a soccer ball in the park and cheers coming from the high school football field – when suddenly the tears blur my eyes and cover my cheeks and I have no idea why.
Maybe it’s the sun piercing my armour; maybe the breeze airing out my soul; maybe the sound of laughter makes me long for happiness.
I remember what Kahlil Gibran wrote in The Prophet: that “Your sorrow is your joy unmasked … When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy. When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.”
In kind of the same vein, the Dalai Lama in A Profound Mind talks about pleasure causing suffering, because it eventually ends and we are left grasping for more. His explanation is that suffering comes from our holding on to a sense of self, and a perception that we, and the objects around us, possess a “true or substantial reality” that doesn’t actually exist. So the only way to move beyond sorrow is to “recognize our true identity: the one that lies beneath our falsely held conceptions of an enduring personal self” and to counter our “natural grasping at inherent existence”. (As an aside, that was a much more difficult book for me to get through than the deceptively serene image of the Dalai Lama on the cover conveyed.)
So sorrow and joy exist at the same time because one reminds us of the other? Letting the beauty of the world in the moment soak into our souls also plants the seed of discontent because we know it can’t last? What should we aim for – to feel both, or neither?