Is There Room for Joy in the Midst of Pain?

“The present moment is filled with joy and happiness. If you are attentive, you will see it. ”   ―Thich Nhat Hanh


It was one of those perfect spring evenings in Texas: a clear blue sky and gentle breeze. My young-adult son came over for dinner, my husband grilled some steaks, and we sat outside talking, laughing and debating (our family often bonds over well-crafted arguments).

As we debated the state of politics, I had one of those surreal moments—the kind where you step back and observe what’s going on as if an outsider peering in. I looked at the two men I love most in the world and felt unspeakable joy—joy for their presence in my life, for the man my son is becoming, for the steady presence of my husband.

It was just a moment, too quickly interrupted by some outrageous claim that drew me back into the debate—but it is those all-too-fleeting moments of joy that make life precious.

Everyday I have the honor of working with people who are hurting and in pain. Their struggles are real and often overwhelming. But sometimes it is important to focus on what’s working in people’s lives.

This can be difficult when mental illness is viewed as only a medical problem. When you have a medical problem, like a broken arm, you go to the doctor, get an x-ray and a cast, and you go on your way. Problem diagnosed and fixed.

Emotional pain isn’t like a broken arm. We can’t see it on an x-ray, and there are no tests to pinpoint most problems. Emotions aren’t fixed in eight, insurance-approved sessions. Study after study has shown that what heals people’s emotional problems is the relationship between a client and a caring and attuned therapist.

I want to connect to all parts of my client—the painful and hurting parts as well as—and just as importantly—the parts that are working well. Clients are often surprised when I ask them what’s working in their lives. They often look at me as if I’ve lost my mind. They have just described the pain and hurt that has devastated them, and here I am asking about what is going well. But human beings are complex, multi-layered beings (like a parfait, as Donkey observed in Shrek) who rarely experience only a single emotion, like sadness, anxiety, fear, or pain.  I believe that helping clients acknowledge they are more than their pain is helpful.  Nurturing a spark of joy, even in someone’s darkest hour, can be an important part of healing.

I’m not saying that when we’re depressed or anxious we should slap a Pollyanna-like smile on our face, put on some pink lipstick and skip through our day pretending nothing is wrong.  Far from it.  The Ostrich approach to pain doesn’t work.  What I am saying is that therapy that focuses solely on what is wrong in a person’s life, or worse yet, views a hurting human being as broken or sick, does not address the whole person. Even in our lowest moments, there is hope and joy to be found somewhere in the parfait of life. I believe that my job as a therapist is to hold that hope until my client can hold for it for themselves.

Healing comes from allowing ourselves to feel both the pain in our life as well as the joy and recognizing that both are equally true and valid.

  • What’s working in your life right now?
  • Can you remember a time when you stepped back and observed yourself in a situation and felt joyful and happy?
  • What or who is a source of simple joy for you?