Is it possible to experience joy–robust and authentic joy–without experiences of true suffering and/or trauma?
This is the compelling question which Dr. Amy Hollywood of the Harvard Divinity School raises at the end of her The Mystery of Trauma, the Mystery of Joy. Hollywood’s work on trauma and joy is an exploration–through historical psychological and hagiographic lenses and with particular attention to The Life of Christina the Astonishing–of the ways in which human understandings of trauma and joy have been interpreted in relationship to one another by thoughtful communities over time. She invites her audience to consider these relationships boldly and intelligently, inspiring a thirst to know whether and/or how the connections between trauma and joy might be re-imagined, re-theorized, and reworked.
Referencing theorists from Foster to Freud, Hollywood’s paper explores the question of how the ethical injunction to “believe” trauma victims who seek to tell their stories seems to conflict with the ways in which these cases may not actually be “real” as they are reported, as is evidenced in cases of dissociation and Freudian repression. Such ideas imply that the trauma victim stands outside of his or her traumatic experience, or distorts or is not able to accept it. This discrepancy troubles Hollywood insofar as it seems to conflict with our ability to hold trauma narratives as sacred. Out of this impulse of being troubled, she probes the connections within trauma and between trauma and joy via her work with medieval texts.
These questions about trauma come to life when applied to hagiography, accounts of the lives of saints. Using the medieval text of Christina the Astonishing, Hollywood explores the implications of this narrative, in which a desire for God results, for Christina, in a desire for death. In Christina’s story, dramatic bodily suffering gives credence to her words. Insofar as this text has been interpreted in the past, Hollywood posits that Christina might not be seen as capable of bearing witness to the joy of Christ without the backdrop of her traumatic experience. It is this very assumption that she questions. In keeping with the way in which Dr. Barbara Newman of Northwestern University reads texts like this, mental disturbance often gives way to bodily pathologies in women, and this gives them a closer relationship to the divine—they are able to gain, via their sensitivity, a glimpse of another world as a result of the fact that women’s bodies are (as seen in medieval times) weaker and more porous than the bodies of men. In this kind of discourse, the implication is that the trauma these women experience gives them a space in which they may authentically experience divine joy.
Hollywood has serious reservations about Newman’s interpretation, because as a result of such a reading, Christina’s hysteria is only seen as “the real thing” in relationship to the trauma she undergoes during her time as a holy woman deeply suffering. Hollywood is interested in the implications of turning this assumption of intimate relationship between trauma and joy on its head. Even as she is familiar with the ways in which previous scholarship on Christina’s joy (and indeed, joy in general) is seen as dependent in some fundamental way upon trauma, these lenses of analysis also concern her and make her wonder whether this connection is indeed essential to experiencing joy. She questions the necessity of the relationship between the two, and asks whether it might be possible to have true joy without a traumatic element or counterbalance.
Particularly provocative and inspiring is the way in which Hollywood fuses theoretical and literary work with the everyday, namely with the implications that this literature and theory has on ordinary human lives in plausible circumstances. As a pragmatic extension of her questions, one cannot help but be drawn into a private self-discourse regarding whether an individual person’s joy is dependent upon his or her relating this sense of joy to its antithesis, trauma. Is it only by inhabiting our moments of trauma and coming to fully inhabit the pain and sorrow of this trauma that we are able to experience the fullness of joy that we experience in circumstances not dictated by woe?
Hollywood’s question has become my own.
In order to start working on that question, I’ll confess that last week I received a postcard from New York with a picture of Van Gogh’s The Starry Night splashed across the front, and I burst into tears.
“Dear Bea–” it read. “I concelebrated the Mass today at St. Patrick’s with Cardinal Dolan, and also with Cardinal Tagle, visiting from the Philippines. Then we went to brunch & then to the Museum of Modern Art. Saw this famous painting. Love, Dad.”
My father–the professor in his bow ties, the priest in his chasuble, the confidante in his listening skin–knows me better than almost anyone else. And after an academic year of trauma–illness, broken relationships, Incompletes in classes, and seemingly interminable times of pain spent three thousand miles away from him and the rest of my family–even something as simple as the kindness of a postcard written in his elegant hand (with his standard emerald green ink, naturally) can make me thankful enough to cry.
There are gifts in everything–in the two hour walks with my favorite Religious Studies professor, Dr. Telford Work, on Tuesday afternoons, in fresh, warm apricot chamomile muffins and bottomless foamy chai at The French Press with my best friend, Ryan, in that feeling I get when my bed is made and I’ve just climbed under the covers to sleep, safe and completely relaxed. They’re everywhere–in the flowers that grow beneath the springtime haze of the marine layer, the memories that burn (but burn because they were good and harsh and true), the brand new record waiting to be played.
Trauma–the ER, the back of a hand, the end of a relationship, academic failure, the inability to breathe. Drowning.
Joy–Cinnabon coffee in the mornings, a day full of laughter, toes in the sand, a date at the Biltmore with one of the most intriguing people I’ve ever met, listening to The John Butler Trio or Victor Wooten while folding laundry that smells of lavender. Rising to the light.
Trauma–emptiness, loneliness, depression, cold.
Joy–letting myself be filled by the things that bring me life, intentional community with others, Strawberry Häagen Dazs, sudden warmth navigated while meeting the eyes of a stranger.
Would I feel as much joy about these things that warm my being if I had never gone through the aggressive freeze?
Although I am still searching for a satisfactory theoretical answer, it seems possible after thinking about it that the connection between trauma and joy could be a function of the world’s current imperfections, but not a necessary condition of existence for all time. In other words, perhaps this connection between trauma and joy as indispensible is not “the way things are supposed to be” or indeed “the way they must necessarily be,” but rather something temporarily broken, something capable of being restored. It seems plausible that we might as human beings one day experience joy without the necessary backdrop of trauma as a means by which to fully and robustly identify and experience this joy talis qualis.
I will hope. And for now I will do my best to live. Joyfully and thankfully I will live. Lightly, in the butter-yellow sun. Growing–ever growing. I will bathe myself in this warmth. I am a sapling. For now, a sapling. I will focus on growing into myself. I will take my time. Trauma after trauma will unravel me and I will allow myself to heal after each one. I will cultivate joy. All, in the words of Julian of Norwich (my favorite British mystic), shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well. I believe her.
We whisper our narratives everywhere we go. Here’s to bends in the path and embracing the unknown. Cheers.