Wednesday, July 28, 2010

To Avoid Pain or To Embrace Joy

For most of my life, my goal has been to avoid pain. My childhood and adolescence were dominated by avoiding the wrath of my terrifyingly rageful father and worrying about how to avoid the wrath of a God whom I imagined to be even more terrifyingly rageful. I couldn't really envision joy - and I didn't care about it. If I could just avoid pain, that was enough for me.

I have sometimes imagined arriving in heaven, which is supposed to be gorgeous and blissful beyond anything we can imagine, and saying, "Yeah, this is nice, but it certainly isn't worth it. It's not worth the pain I went through on earth to get here. Being so terrified on earth was so painful that it wasn't worth it to go through that terror to get to heaven."

I have been puzzled as to why God would create humans, knowing how much people on earth would suffer and knowing that some people would even suffer for an eternity in hell. If God hadn't created humans, no one would suffer. Of course, no one would experience the joy of heaven, either - but if no one existed, then no one would miss it. A person who does not exist cannot be said to miss something. And it has seemed to me far more important to prevent pain than to provide joy. Having no one around to experience joy seems a small price to pay in order to prevent suffering. If no one existed, then no one would be in bliss, but no one would be in pain, either - and that has seemed good to me.

So eager have I been to prevent suffering, that I have never had a child. I even feel that this is the best thing I have done in my life. When I leave this earth, I will not leave behind anyone on earth who is there because of my efforts. I have given birth to no one. No one will suffer on earth because I inflicted life upon them. That is one thing I have been determined never to do - never to inflict life upon anyone. When I die, I leave no one behind. It is true that my children will not experience joy, but they will not miss the experience of joy because they don't exist. Someone who does not exist cannot be said to miss anything. And since my children don't exist, they will not experience pain, either.

This goal of avoiding pain can actually lead to an attitude of simply waiting to die. One can start to think: It won't be much longer before I can die and get out of here.

Now, what would it be like to abandon the goal of avoiding pain and to embrace joy, instead. Here is what I think it would look like.

  • Turning my attention to the good, the gracious, the beautiful, the compassionate, the joyful.
  • Savoring those things.
  • Noticing what causes my heart to leap with joy.
  • Bringing more of those things into my life.
  • Expressing thanks.
  • Relaxing into a gracious universe.
  • Relating to God as Being itself.
  • Spending time quietly centered on God within.
  • Living generously.


  1. I love these reflections. I'd never thought of the fact that living with the goal of avoiding pain can lead to an attitude of simply waiting to die.
    Interesting how joy and pain are often inexplicably linked. The intensity of the one seems to add to the depth of the other. For example, the pain of losing a loved one goes as deep as the bond of love shared. And victory is all the more joyful after having been previously defeated. Trapped as we are in time and space, pain would seem to be the ultimate evil - to be avoided at all costs. Yet life estranged from God is so tragic, that one would be blessed to have the gap bridged, regardless of the temporal pain or discomfort involved. Whether I fully live into this or not, I desire to glorify God, and enjoy Him forever: starting now and into eternity. And pain only hamper us so long.

  2. Julia, thank you for these comments. I think you are right about the linking of joy and pain and the intensity of one leading to the intensity of the other. This is why, I believe, we don't have a world where pain is limited. I don't think that it's possible to limit our capacity to feel pain without also limiting our capacity to feel joy. Limiting our capacity to feel pain would limit our capacity to feel, period.