The Pleasure and the Pain

Posted on by Curt Thompson

As Tolstoy once wrote, we were created not for work, not to suffer, and not to go to heaven when we die. We were created for joy. As I am fond of telling people, each one of us comes out of the womb looking for someone looking for us. And the thing we are most looking for is that when that someone finds us, they are delighted to see us—we experience the joy of another’s delight in our presence. And who doesn’t love hearing the message, as Jim Wilder and his colleagues write, “We’re so glad to see you and that you’re here!”

But how many of us, upon waking in the morning, immediately attune to the notion that the world is delighted that we are now awake? Is that the first thing you think when the alarm goes off? Not me, that’s for sure. “I should have gone to bed sooner.” “I hope my ten o’clock patient cancels.” (Therapists think these things, you know. They would never say so, but they do). “I wonder if I’m going to be fired today.” Okay, perhaps that’s a bit more on the dark side than I need remind us. But still, I think you get it.

If we were created for joy, how is it that that does not seem to be my default response to simply being conscious? If the establishment of joy-filled attachment relationships is the goal of the first two years of life as asserted by neuropsychologist Allan Schore (and others would say that mission never really ends), then why does life seem to be filled with so much that is anything but those very joyful experiences?

One way of answering this question is found in the very early neurodevelopment of children. If joyful exploration and discovery of their world is the primary mission of newborns and toddlers, then their experience of shame is the very opposite. It is the force that begins early (as young as fifteen months of age) and often, weaving its way into the mind and brain and body of each one of us through the nonverbal as well as verbal communication exchanges we have with one another. In this way shame acts like someone slamming on the brakes of a standard transmission car while the accelerator is still at full throttle—without using the clutch. And for those who can drive a stick shift, you know what happens.

We were created to be curious, emotionally nimble persons of discovery—discovery of our inner and outer worlds, and the worlds of others’ minds and hearts as well. Worlds we were born to discover and steward. But with shame that knows no age limits, we find our curiosity and joy truncated, and instead of discovery, we are left to become masters of the universe instead, with us having to devise ways to cope with the awful feelings—and subsequent painful narrative—that shame generates. It drives us into hiding, isolation, and mental stasis. It divides and separates different functions of our mind from one another (how easy was it for you to “think” creatively when you last experienced a storm of shame? How easy was it to “simply” turn your attention away from the shame to something pleasant?); and equally divides each of us from one another. It moves us literally to a place of emotional and cognitive stasis, virtually all of our energy diverted away from creative endeavor, most of it converted to merely coping with the heavy burden of the emotional payload that is shame’s signature. Mostly, shame is a harbinger of abandonment. And the human mind hates nothing—nothing—more so than being left. Totally. Alone.

But Jesus is telling a very different story than is shame. Jesus’ story is one in which even in the face of suffering, shame does not have to have the talking stick. Even in the midst of sorrow shame does not get to have the last word. For in Jesus—and in the community that faithfully comes together as confessional, kind, truth-telling, professional sinners—we once again discover the joy of forgiveness and freedom from shame’s tyranny. This work is not easy and it is not done overnight. But in the presence of persevering sisters and brothers, we can begin to ferret out shame from the dark crevasses in which it hides, in order to free up that latent energy that has been lying dormant all this time as we attempt to hold our shame in check.

Jesus said to his disciples, “I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.” (John 15:11). And what was it he told them? Nothing more—or less—than that he loved them in the same way his Father loved him. How many of us sense, image, and feel—as well as think about—that very love, that delight that the Holy Trinity feels for each of us? A love that consistently, when it finds us (often, in my case, unawares), sends the message that it could not be more pleased to be my Father, Brother, and Comforter. I mean, who gets to hear, every morning, “There you are! We have been waiting for you all night—and we’re so glad you have awakened because we can’t wait to share this day with you!” But this is the God we believe has made us, who loves us, and whose intention it is that joy be the life of our party.

When it comes to shame, who is in your life whose job it is to remind you that they—and our Trinitarian God—could not be more pleased to see you?! My encouragement, if you cannot easily name them, would be to begin to pray that God would send to you those people who will begin to reflect the joy that was all about you in the beginning, and to which you are the road to returning.

It would be a shame for life to be any other way.

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