On Joy and Loss

I recently happened upon an essay that rekindled my love for life – but not in the way the author intended.

From Zadie Smith’s Essay on Joy:

“The thing no one ever tells you about joy is that it has very little real pleasure in it. And yet if it hadn’t happened at all, at least once, how would we live? Joy is such a human madness.

Children are the infamous example. Isn’t it bad enough that the beloved, with whom you have experienced genuine joy, will eventually be lost to you? Why add to this nightmare the child, whose loss, if it ever happened, would mean nothing less than your total annihilation? You hope to leave this world before your child. You are quite certain your dog will leave before you do, relationships with animals being in some sense intensified by guaranteed finitude.

The writer Julian Barnes, considering mourning, once said, “It hurts just as much as it is worth.” It hurts just as much as it is worth. What an arrangement. Why would anyone accept such a crazy deal? Surely if we were sane and reasonable we would every time choose a pleasure over a joy, as animals themselves sensibly do. The end of a pleasure brings no great harm to anyone, after all, and can always be replaced with another of more or less equal worth.”

-Zadie Smith

My knee jerk was “Who wouldn’t accept such a crazy deal?”

Barnes is right, the loss of true joy “hurts just as much as it is worth”.  If something or someone is worth nothing to you, its loss will not hurt – just as the loss of a simple pleasure will not destroy you.  This means two things.

First, the entrance of joy into your life for a moment or for an extended period naturally creates a potential future grief equal to its importance and value.  Every action has an equal and opposite reaction.  Each joy has an equal and opposite grief.  If we choose to focus on this aspect, as Zadie Smith seems to, joy is something to be feared and avoided, a “madness” or “crazy deal”.

Second, true joy has real worth so important to our soul that we cannot help but become linked with it, perhaps find ourselves changed by it.  We may crave pleasure as we do joy.  We may fantasize about, lust after, find our brains madly occupied with many things that are joys, or just simple pleasures – brief, replaceable, and shallow.  We may sometimes have trouble telling them apart.  But a joy is something deeper, something that nourishes the soul like no pleasure can. Joy gives life meaning.  Where and how we find joy can define us, connect us, create us. If we focus on this aspect, joy is the most important thing – despite the precipice of loss upon which it leaves us teetering.


It has often struck me how interconnected emotions can be, as if the human heart is a crazy ven diagram of feeling.  In joy exists fear, in sadness exists comfort, in grief exists celebration.

In a culture where death is hidden away, where sadness is a disease treated with SSRIs, where taking time to sit with one’s emotion is seen as weak and unproductive, it can be incredibly hard to grieve a loss.

Grieving is different for everyone, there is no correct way and there should be no expectations.  However, a huge loss is not something one gets a lot of practice at, hopefully.  No one knows themselves exactly how they will feel or what they will need.  Some built-in methods of grieving in our culture might act as street lights on an otherwise dark path.  A death may be marked by a wake, funeral or memorial, but the public nature makes many feel they must be actors without revealing their true emotions. Many losses are personal with no pomp and circumstance, no remark from the outside world.

In grief we may feel despair, anger, hopelessness, emptiness, betrayal.  We may feel we can’t bear it.  We may even feel that having the thing could not have been worth the loss.  But, as Barnes said, “it hurts as much as it is worth”.

In grief, I have always begun to feel celebration.  I have prolonged and delved into my pain to show to myself the importance of that lost thing, to respect its worth.  In a way, my soul would have felt betrayed if I had turned away from the pain, I wouldn’t have been acknowledging the value of something that had true soul meaning to me.

Many cultures have rituals, timelines, grieving practices that can be cathartic and healing.  Perhaps this can be unhealthy and confining too, but more openness around death, trauma and hardship, and an understanding of grief in our culture would be absolutely positive.


Just as walking a tight rope may require ‘not looking down’, sometimes the fear of loss can cause us to behave in ways that actually result in the loss we feared.  I sometimes find myself grieving the loss of things I still have, focusing on the wrong end of the experience, like Zadie Smith.  If we focus this way we hold too tight, we try to protect ourselves.  We look down into that crevasse and vertigo takes over.  Some of us miss the joy in front of us.  Some of us fall.

A song that really kicks me in the heart is Smother by Daughter.  The song is about someone who smothers their relationships and is so hopeless about making one last and guilty that they wish they were dead.  I have been in that place and know how heartbreaking it can be to lose something because your afraid of losing it.

Even before the fear of loss kicks in, joy itself can overwhelm us. Have you felt beauty that makes you cry, seen something so cute you clench your teeth and want to ‘eat it up’, felt so connected so someone you want to squeeze the life out of them?  This ‘cute aggression’ or dimorphous expression seems to be the brain dealing with an absolutely overwhelming emotion.  This may be the brain allowing the emotion to spill over and activate other nervous systems responses or the brain may be activating responses usually associated with sadness, anger etc as a way of bringing us back down. At a biological level, our bodies may try to protect us from a joy overload.

Joy can be a difficult thing to accept and look in the eyes.  It is complicated, powerful, terrifying and not at all like the slow motion run through the rain at the airport to a swelling, triumphant, orchestral soundtrack.

Palliative Pleasure

Because joy and meaning are not necessarily easy, it is easy to fall back on low risk, low reward replacements.  Our lives are so filled with wonderbread substitutes for meaning.  We are hungry and myriad social networks, screens, etc. make us feel like we are eating but, like wonderbread, they have no nutrients.  We can pretend we are getting what we need without standing on that terrifying edge.  Perhaps some people can live a whole life without many deep, meaningful moments, perhaps that is not a universal need.  I doubt it, but humans always surprise me in their diversity.  The prevalence of unfulfilling social interactions is a very common topic these days, and I doubt that I will illuminate any new information if I continue.  Suffice it to say (although I’m sure this loses some weight as a facebook note) I hope we begin to shift back to more real face time and less facebook as a culture.



My feelings in the matter (and I can tell you the exact moment I came to this realization) are that without risk there can be no reward, without lows there are no highs, without the potential for loss and grief the connections and joys in your life lose the meaning that make them special.

I believe Tennysons’ Tis better to have loved and lost is omnipresent, however cheesy,  because everyone at some point has wondered “Is this really better?  Wouldn’t ignorance be bliss?”  Tennyson knows, and I think Barnes would agree, that the beauty of life is not found in the fleeting pleasures, but in the wild, deep experiences and relationships that can lead to pain.

 It is almost invariably better to walk that tightrope, to stand at the edge of that precipice, and sometimes to fall and fall completely.  To be truly alive with meaning and intention.  With joy and pain.  Maybe it’s a crazy deal, but it’s one I’ll shake on.


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