She doesn’t want pain.
She’s laying out long in summer, along the stone wall of bank barn greying, our girl molting out of her skin. I sit down beside her, her plucking green grass right out of the planet.
“You don’t want to play up in the haymow?” The turf’s tickling her bare toes and I touch her shoulder. Her four brothers and one sister are up in the hayloft, romping wild with her uncle’s pups. I can hear their squeals through the cracks in the weathered barn boards.
“I tried to get them all to come down from there.” She rolls over on her back, stares up at that sky riding low, cloud bellies skimming.
“They’re digging tunnels through the straw and the puppies are all following them. I told them what’s going to happen!” She tosses her blade of grass, bits of her heart, to the wind.
“But nobody’ll listen to me.”
Oh, girl, do I know it… I bite my lip, hold back a tugging smile… and lean closer… so she know that I am.
“So…. what do you think’s going to happen up in the hayloft — but nobody will listen to you?”
She turns from watching July scud white.
“Love those puppies and you’re just going to hurt.”
Someone rips earth carpet out from under me and my soul teeters. I reach out to touch her hair, find equilibrium.
“Really? You’d rather lay out here on the grass all alone, than play up in the mow with all the kids and the puppies…..” Her and I, we can hear the boys calling impromptu puppy names….
She nods, determined. “Yep. I told them all to stop playing with them, because what’s the point? They’re just gonna fall in love with them… and then we have to go. And then they’re all going to be crying. I don’t care if I’m laying out here…. I’m not going to let those puppies make make me cry.” She looks me straight in the eye.
“Don’t they know the longer you love, the longer it hurts?”
Oh girl… do I know it….
Love’s the power that electrifies and we long for it’s blaze and we hate it’s burn and we retreat to the lives all insulated.
So agrees George Valliant, chief director of The Grant Study, a monumental, extensive longitudinal study of 286 men over the course of 72 years of their lives…
“The happiness books say, ‘Try happiness. You’ll like it a lot more than misery’—which is perfectly true,” he told them. But why, he asked, do people tell psychologists they’d cross the street to avoid someone who had given them a compliment the previous day?
In fact, Vaillant went on, positive emotions make us more vulnerable than negative ones. One reason is that they’re future-oriented. Fear and sadness have immediate payoffs—protecting us from attack or attracting resources at times of distress.
Gratitude and joy, over time, will yield better health and deeper connections—but in the short term actually put us at risk.
That’s because, while negative emotions tend to be insulating, positive emotions expose us to the common elements of rejection and heartbreak.
Is that it? We’d rather voluntarily choose loneliness, sadness, anger, than let loneliness, sadness anger come unbidden on the heels of love?
We’d rather choose the safety of negativity, than the wild tenderness of positivity? So we dig fingernails into soul autonomy, determined to independently control the shaping of our lives. We intentionally choose negativity before we inadvertently stumble into it.
(It can’t be the negativity we’re avoiding, because we’re actually most likely choosing it as our default… Is it this then what we’re really terrified of: the dreaded unknown of when the sadness will come? Would we seriously rather forgo any joy — just grab our own unhappiness now — than risk it being unexpectedly thrust upon us? We’d rather seize pain than be side-swiped by it?)
We’d prefer to invite our demons than let them pop in unannounced.
Is this why we wander wide circles around God?
George Vaillant tells a telling, cut to the quick story of one of his “prize” Grant Study men, a doctor and well-loved husband.
“On his 70th birthday,” Vaillant said, “when he retired from the faculty of medicine, his wife got hold of his patient list and secretly wrote to many of his longest-running patients, ‘Would you write a letter of appreciation?’
And back came 100 single-spaced, desperately loving letters—often with pictures attached. And she put them in a lovely presentation box covered with Thai silk, and gave it to him.”
Eight years later, Vaillant interviewed the man, who proudly pulled the box down from his shelf. “George, I don’t know what you’re going to make of this,” the man said, as he began to cry, “but I’ve never read it.”
“It’s very hard,” Vaillant said, “for most of us to tolerate being loved.”
Is that why we keep wide circles around God?
Sometimes we can hardly tolerate being loved by God: We can’t possibly be worthy.
(What’s the meaning of grace? Could I learn?)
Sometimes we can hardly tolerate being loved by God because we fear He will disappoint and we will only hurt.
(What’s the meaning of trust? Could I learn?)
Joy only marinates on the tenderized edges of the vulnerable places willing to be made soft, even through pain.
Can we embrace pain coming whenever, so joy might come now?
I offer my hand to Hope all stretched out alone by the barn, offer to help her up, and she takes it. “You know why love is the greatest, Hope?”
She shakes her head, rubs the grass off her shirt.
“Pain will come because pain’s the underbelly of love, but Love is the greatest because nothing, not even pain, can can ever steal love’s joy.” I tuck a strand of hair behind her ear, pray she hears me down in her caverns.
“Even when the love seems gone, a memory, the joy of that memory still remains, always.
Love always remains forever. Love is the greatest. Pain can never trump love.”
I smile and nod and I’m not sure how much she fully comprehends of what I’m trying to figure out, trying to find words to, but she must feel my heart for her deeps shimmer and she looks past me up the barn bank towards to that posse of kids and puppies.
I don’t doubt her coming with a glance over over my shoulder (because who can resist puppies for long?).
I know she’s coming behind, I can feel her coming behind. I can feel her walking sure, even now, towards the unknowns of knowing love, towards a brave and tender joy.
(A repost from the 2009 archives)