No situation, however wretched it seems, but has some sort of comfort attending it.”Goldsmith
The following day after Anya died, we all sat down in the living room and were talking about her, about all the funny things she used to do and say. We were laughing hard. If someone were to walk in and see us, someone who had no idea what had happened, they would think Anya were sleeping or perhaps gone to play with a neighbor’s child. There was no way they would know she had just been buried the day before.
Could one find joy in the midst of such great sorrow? Yes, if the person involved is Anya. But beyond Anya, I believe the same truth applies to life generally. There are ways we can still find joy right in the midst of this present darkness—a world of COVID-19—not only when it is over. Who knows when that would be or what else lurks ahead?
I have often wondered at this human paradox; the co-existence of opposite realities and contrasting emotions within a single life at a given time. There are many human experiences, not often put together, that go on at once. These are realities (or resulting realities from the interaction of two or more opposing realities) that feed the crafts of the poet and the philosopher.
These spaces between opposing realities must also be what gives deeper meaning to the message of the preacher. Ignore it and your message will become abstracted, falling flat on the surface of human experience.
The memories of Anya as a person can only fill me with peace and joy. She was so enjoyable. But at the same time, I feel great sorrow for the same reason. A memory can bring a smile to my face and the next minute I am reduced to tears by it.
The presence of sadness or grieve does not mean a total absence of joy (and vice versa), even when one of the two takes preeminence over the other at a given moment in time. In a fallen world, the two can coexist. To find joy in God is not to tune off from life’s challenges and problems; an impossible thing to do anyway.
Anya was the sweetest and the most innocent person closest to me. My memories of her are of her smiling, giggling, or running around. She loved life and went all out to enjoy it; hers was a vividly outgoing and fun-filled life. She loved people unreservedly, especially other children. They were all her friends!
Of course, Anya was a human child with human faults. She was such a handful little tornado (a nickname she earned from a sweet friend of mine). I don’t miss the extra work she incurred for me, but that wasn’t what defined her; her sweetness was. Even for difficult children, parents know that what defines these children is not their difficulty but their personhood and the sweetness attached to it.
What defines life is not so much its difficulties, but the little joys that make life itself a gift. Like a quiet walk in the woods, or falling in love, or lying still on a stretch of warm, flat rock, listening to the flowing stream and exquisite bird songs. Or a cup of scented tea before bed, or a good book. Or a heart to heart chat with a good friend.
Some of these may seem like descriptions of the pleasures of a privileged life, I know. But the underprivileged can also be joyful; they have pleasures to enjoy in spite of their difficulties. I should know. I have often wondered at that. The poor seem the most happy sometimes. They have easy laughs and love jokes. I’d be happier if only my mind would be quieter and not think too much.
Anya had her manners in place and good emotional intelligence. She would always say “I am sorry” without any of us demanding that she apologized. Sometimes I would be so angry I won’t respond, but she won’t stop saying it until I did. “Mummy, I said I am sorry.” She had her “please,” and “thank you” in good use.
One very funny memory of Anya we have is, when she helped you and you forgot to say thank you, she would say, “You’re welcome!” reminding you that you needed to say thank you. That used to crack us all up. I have never felt sorrow in her death for her own sake; it is always for our own. She had nothing to lose by dying; we did.
I am relearning in a whole new way the default setting of a fallen world. Little successes here and there, sporadic joys and happiness produced by what is left of goodness in an otherwise chaotic reign of evil, can be quite deceptive for a moment. We keep expecting the world to be good and life to be fair all the time, but is this even a fair expectation given what we know?
A majority of the world’s population has always suffered what the whole world is now suffering as a result of COVID–19: the instability and suspense, the uncertainty, difficulties, and anxiety; the fear that your life or that of a loved one may be cut short and the accompanying feeling of powerlessness and hopelessness that torments the soul as a result. Welcome to the world of the deprived and destitute!
I am not saying we should not pray for fairness or even advocate for it. Why else are we in the world as salt and light? But we do so remembering the default setting of this fallen world like Jesus did. He stepped into a messy world to bring hope. Jesus gave hope to many through his miracles and his teachings without expecting the world to be good; he inspired hope in an otherwise hopeless world.
In a fallen world, life can only be generally difficult. We are caught between this paradox of good and evil, light and darkness, peace and war, joy and sorrow. The two realities are opposed to each other, but it is the presence of the one that distinguishes the other. We understand goodness only as it compares to badness or evil. Only in heaven and in hell do the two exist exclusively.
God’s gifts of love, friendships, family, good neighbors, and friendly strangers give us joy in the midst of sorrow. The poor know that. They have learned that joy can be found without material wealth and the comforts it can afford, places it can take you, and the things you can achieve. Joy is found in God and the gifts he gives in the midst of our sorrows. The truly destitute cannot afford to be irreligious even when they are inconsistent in their piety.
But this does not make the poor and needy immune to their suffering. Some eventually end their lives in hope of a permanent escape from their misery. Nor am I suggesting that the present pandemic has made life easier for the poor; it can only complicate an already difficult life. Nevertheless, the pandemic has given the privileged of the world a window into the brokenness of human systems.
I can’t escape the memories of Anya, or escape being saddened by them. She left a scar, not only in my heart but also on my body from her birth through cesarean section. Her two favorite stuffed animals and a pair of shoes I refused to give or put away, some clothing items yet to be given away, hairpins and beads that I sometimes find in my purse, or in a drawer, or at a corner somewhere in the house; pictures and videos of her on my phone…
The things that remind me of Anya are innumerable. The water dispenser—which I almost couldn’t use for a while because we have had quite a scene over the way she liked playing with it. Some kitchen items too. I remember her brother refusing to use a particular cup because it is “Anya’s cup.” She preferred to use it more than the other cups. These are painful memories because they remind us of someone very precious that we no longer have with us, yet they are joyful memories of the happy times we shared with Anya.
The very house itself from the gate—no, from the turn one takes to join the street from the main road—reminds me of her; of her funeral procession. And every new memory comes with a new round of grief. I feel guilty eating the things she used to enjoy as though she misses them.
For a while, I couldn’t pass by her school; couldn’t bring myself to see the playground on which I spent many hours with her. The sight of her teacher when she came to condole with us reduced me to sobs, just like the mere memory of her school and how she loved to be there subjected me to whimpering.
Things that caused her sadness upset me because they remind me of her misery. I am still unable to listen to the music we used to listen to together. Her light approaching steps rang in my head for quite a while, mostly when I was in the kitchen, in the bedroom or outside in the yard, places she often came to meet me. There were times I turned around quickly, expecting to see her approaching while still knowing that I would not see her approaching.
I have felt her presence sometimes in the early days of my grieving and even spoke to her once, begging her forgiveness for my negligence. You don’t have to believe me, but I know she heard me. Peace flooded my heart immediately. It was the last time I felt guilt over her death, even though I still experience regrets. Many times I have felt the urge to pray for her and I do, every time.
I do not attach any theological significance to these experiences. But I believe that the human mind is capable of experiencing other realities that are beyond the mundane, everyday experiences of our material existence. I am not referring to notional realities or mere imaginative power (though I have a surplus of it as a fiction writer). I mean that there are immaterial/metaphysical realities we can experience with our minds and spirits beyond the confines of scientific and logical positivism. Perhaps I should stop here; I am beginning to ramble.
In a world of COVID-19, I am resolved to find joy in family, friends (true ones), good neighbors, and in good memories. I find peace and joy also in nature. Have you noticed that the universe is still the same? Nothing has changed about the natural world.
The lilies and vibrant plants blooming from the abundant rain and the sassy afternoon sun remind me that, in spite of the way it is ravaging the human world, there is a world that COVID-19 is yet to touch. If anything, the lockdown (restricted human activity) across the world has only rejuvenated nature. We can find some joy in that fact.