Excerpt from The Four Virtues

by  Tobin Hart

Have you ever had a dream that seemed both real and important? I had been wondering about joy, curious about what it’s really about, and how I could have more in my own life. One night, as if in answer to my query, I had a dream that I could not have expected less.

It centered on a young girl who had apparently developed a terminal illness. In spite of this, she appeared quite well but was going to be euthanized so that she didn’t have to suffer. My heart ached more than I thought I could stand as I watched this scene unfold. Thoughts screamed through my mind: What more life might she have to live? What will she miss? She’s fine! She’s not ready yet! I watched in agony as she was placed in the seat of a large convertible. Sand began to fill the car and swallow her up. Someone said, “She has already had four pills,” but the girl was still conscious as the sand steadily engulfed her body until her head disappeared and she was buried alive.

Dreams are funny things. They’re messages in symbols, artifacts of indigestion, a tap in the cosmic internet. They’re hard to understand sometimes, but like all things, dreams provide an opportunity for us to look for meaning. Feelings seem the most natural place to start. The sheer agony of watching this girl buried alive apparently to escape the pain of her condition (a very human condition—we’re all terminal, after all) was at the center of this dream for me. I was stunned at how intense the feelings were and how they absolutely broke my heart. I had a dream hangover the next day, and it took another night’s sleep to quell the ache. How could this be an answer to my question about the nature of joy?

While happiness is often defined as the result of a pleasurable experience, joy lives deeper down. It is an aliveness that manifests through the depth of the full human experience, not the segregation or preference for certain feelings. If my dream (or how I made sense of it) had any significance, it had to do with joy being big enough to encompass all of it—angst and anger, delight and despair. To protect us from certain feelings or constrict the degree of feeling is to bury us alive, like the girl in my dream. Suffering may be the first grace because it lets us know we’re alive, making us pay attention to each moment because each moment is the only one where life is lived. Feelings let us know we’re really alive.

We are faced with the inevitability of suffering every day. The Buddha’s first noble truth is that suffering is part of life. But Meister Eckhart said this about this relationship between suffering and joy: “The swiftest steed to bear you to your goal is suffering...Nothing is more gall-bitter than suffering, nothing so honey sweet as to have suffered...for joy brings sorrow and sorrow brings joy.” As much as we may not like it, adversity can activate untapped potentials. As Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans, “Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.” A difficult situation can bring out our best as we rise to the occasion and transform suffering. We find stunning examples of courage in the face of long odds. When the last marathoner crosses the finish line after a ridiculously long time, we’re brought to tears, seeing this suffering as an act of heroism. It is out past the edge of our comfort zones that things get stirred up; it’s out here in the wild that there is possibility for powerful growth. And when we see another suffer with illness, homelessness, or grief, it can activate compassion in us so that we reach out and offer up our hearts to them. We might even wonder whether compassion could exist without suffering, as suffering often enacts compassion.

But what makes the difference? What turns suffering into grace? Paradoxically, the essential action is not to step away from or sidestep suffering, which is the instinctive tendency when something hurts. Instead it has something to do with stepping into what is given.

We are transformed not by allowing some feelings in and keeping others at bay but by bringing into the clearing of our awareness all the elements of our selves—the dark void, the small light, the blackest dreams, and the shimmering hopes. When we do so, we stop wasting time and energy discriminating against, hiding from, and fearing ourselves. The heart grows not so much by what we exclude but by what we embrace.

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