This I Believe: Sorrow Is Joy

Judith - Bainbridge Island, Washington
Entered on November 27, 2008
Age Group: 65+
Themes: family, hope, setbacks


“Sorrow is joy.” This phrase was spoken to me in the summer of 1951 when on a dusty gravel road in middle Finland a fellow worker and I were both riding bikes a kilometer or so to work. My friend was Danish and since she was a few years older than me she had lived through World War II. She was trying to describe to me what she had learned from the war.

Sorrow is joy? That’s quirky, I thought. What does it mean? It was early morning and we were about to arrive at the farmer’s fields where our job awaited us. We were living and working in an international Quaker workcamp whose purpose was to help the Karelian refugees who had just been given land after the war, to clear it. They had no machinery. Our unskilled, but willing hands had joined with their skilled hands to get the land ready to actually grow crops.

I remembered that English was not my Danish friend Margarethe’s mother tongue and recognized that I would have to interpret this phrase for myself. My first stab at it was something like this: “Trouble, if you meet it head on with some support, can give you a sense of accomplishment, even joy, from which its possible to come out a happier person.” I was young then, I had lived a remarkably lucky life which had held little trauma and much love. My experiences had included good hunks of joy and not included much trouble or sorrow, but the phrase stuck with me. “Sorrow is joy”

Some seven years later after I had married and given birth to my first child, my physician husband and I were getting ready to go to Turkey where for five years he would practice medicine with other Turkish doctors in a 50 bed Turkish hospital. Another doctor, a U.S. citizen who had already practiced in Turkey for forty years and was finally able to leave now we were arriving to take his place, wrote a welcoming letter to us. In it he gave us, among other bits of advice and wisdom this: “While you’re here, I rather hope you suffer. If you don’t suffer, how will you grow?” That’s quirky, I thought, what does he mean?

In trying to figure that one, I recalled “Sorrow is joy” and decided to rephrase the doctor’s advice to: it is when things aren’t all sweetness and light and you are challenged to make it through difficulties and somehow come out with a sense of having coped, that your days deepen and become more satisfying. Certainly the added troubles of living with a family in a strange culture and the way the difficulties necessitated making huge adjustments, and being flexible, and learning new human skills taught us that the very trouble could facilitate growth. The way both humor and humility were required to meet troubling experiences must have been what he was saying was growth. That growth, if it happened, might not have happened if circumstances had not made it essential to learn to cope.

And now some fifty years later I have lost a wonderful husband to death and watched our four children have to cope with divorce and illness and financial difficulties. Now I know that had they sailed through life on easy street they would not be the remarkable human beings they are. I know that the important action for us as their parents was not to protect them from hard experiences, but to support them through their troubles with empathy and understanding.

The sorrows of later life have been more numerous, but because our family has found sorrow must not be lived through with a pollyanna-like optimistic attitude, but rather a hopeful attitude which looks for actions and gentle ways to cope rather than surrender, I believe we feel ourselves to be having rich, joyful lives. Margarethe may well have gone universal by this time, but I am still thanking her as I learn more of the meaning of “Sorrow is joy.”