“What if pleasure and displeasure were so tied together that whoever wanted to have as much as possible of one must also have as much as possible of the other?” the great German philosopher Fredrich Nietzsche once wondered. We usually think opposites are the antithesis of each other when— in fact— one contains the other. Before the hope of a new dawn, there is the darkness of dusk; before birth, death; before calm, a storm. Pleasure cannot exist without pain; love cannot exist without loss. How wonderful, we think, to wipe Mondays forever from our calendars! Yet we can only have the giddy anticipation of clocking out on Friday if we have the existential dread of returning to the office three days later.
Poet, painter, and philosopher Kahlil Gibran ponders this puzzling paradox in The Prophet, his 1923 masterwork. Though we often want to escape the pain of distressing emotions— despair, heartbreak, anger, sadness, grief— we have to endure the wilderness to eventually arrive at the promised land of happiness and healing. As Gibran writes, in order to experience the ecstatic elation of joy, we must first experience the despondency of sorrow:
“The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.
Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter’s oven?
And is not the lute that soothes your spirit, the very wood that was hollowed with knives?
When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy.”
Which is more powerful: joy or sorrow? comfort and calm or angst and anguish? bliss or hell? Gibran contends joy and sorrow are not irreconcilable antipodes— they’re two corresponding, if opposite, halves of the same whole:
“Some of you say, ‘Joy is greater than sorrow,’ and others say, ‘Nay, sorrow is the greater.’
But I say unto you, they are inseparable.
Together they come, and when one sits alone with you at your board, remember that the other is asleep upon your bed.”
Longing for more gushing beauty and poised poetry? Delight in Gibran’s timeless wisdom on pleasure and pain, labor as a form of love, and love as our most demanding work.
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