Debra-Lynn B. Hook: Joy Alongside Suffering |

My meditation teacher recently challenged our group to consider something that many of us have lost sight of over the past two years.

“Think of a single time when you or someone you know felt joy.”

At first, I couldn’t think of anything or anyone. Everyone I know is suffering, if not from COVID itself, at least from fear of COVID, isolation from COVID, or the lingering effects of living with a pandemic for two years.

“It can be small. Your joy doesn’t have to be so big or dramatic,” she said.

Then I remembered an encounter I had had earlier in the week.

It was during a Zoom appointment with a new doctor. Atypical of harassed and rushed doctors these days, she had surprised me by spending almost an hour with me. She mostly listened because she seemed genuinely respectful of what I had to say, ultimately agreeing with my opinion on how to fix a mild thyroid problem.

I was so captivated by his approach that at the end, I spontaneously let go: “I love you!” which made us both laugh like new best friends.

It was a tiny thing in the order of things, this resonance of spontaneous affection between two strangers.

But recounting the moment to my meditation group, it filled the spaces between us.

And it occurred to me that suffering can take over our lives.

Or those bits of joy can.

It’s easy to think the world is hostile these days, which it is in many ways. The human race is threatened by climate change, corporate greed, vicious ideological wars, and now the super germs we only encountered in movies.

In the case of my family, our lives were further complicated by my ex-husband’s rapidly progressing dementia and my serious and chronic health conditions, which forced our young adult children to relocate to help.

The challenges are daily. Fear, uncertainty and grief form the paradigm as my children and I remain ready for the next crack in the pavement.

Given these scenarios, it’s easy to lose sight of a balanced life that realistically includes, yes, pain, but also surprise, wonder, fun, and joy.

And yet “What would happen if we moved on to joy? asked my meditation teacher. “What if we made it a point to seek joyful experiences in the midst of our difficulties?”

The thing is, we could encounter happy feelings everywhere, she says.

It’s not denial, she said.

“It’s not avoiding suffering. It’s making a deliberate choice to watch the light in the dark.”

I thought about it the other day after my appointment with the craniosacral therapist who deals with painful sciatica that doesn’t seem to want to go away. The snow here in northeast Ohio had stopped for the first time in weeks. The thermometer read 52. As I walked to my car, I heard the joyful chirping of birds that had come out of nowhere to celebrate. I got in my car and, opening my window, I made a conscious decision to stop thinking about sciatica. And I let the birds sing to me at home.

Eventually, I realize that I can blossom into joy whenever I want, when I study the rays of sunlight streaming through my bedroom window in the morning or the steam billowing from my oatmeal. I find joy in meetings with other people, with my children when we share an old family prayer after a difficult visit with their dad and before a meal. I find joy in the workers at the local health food store who shop for me and never complain when I call three times to add to my list. I think of the caregivers at my ex-husband’s memory care center as the kids and I prepared to leave him one night. Steve had a hard time watching us leave. Not one, not two, but three nurses and orderlies came to stand by his bed and distract him with jokes as we left.

The world can seem like a hurting and painful place. And yet, when I turn my head a turn to the right or left, I can almost always find a real moment of live joy right in the middle. These moments can also develop. Joy also has the potential to take root in my heart, not in place of suffering, but alongside it.

Finding joy doesn’t always come naturally to me right away. For now, it’s a deliberate act. But with care and attention, maybe one day it will happen again on its own.

“The seed of suffering can be strong,” wrote the late and great Buddhist teacher and author Thich Nhat Hanh. “But don’t wait until you are no longer suffering to allow yourself to be happy. When a tree in the garden is sick, it must be taken care of. But don’t neglect all healthy trees.

“Disassemble a musical instrument,” wrote the great poet Rumi hundreds of years before COVID. “Let the beauty we love be what we do. There are hundreds of ways to kneel down and kiss the ground.

(Debra-Lynn B. Hook of Kent, Ohio, has been writing about family life since 1988. Visit her website at; email her at [email protected], or join the discussion group Facebook of her column at Debra-Lynn Hook: Raising Mom.)

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