Without Darkness and Sorrow, there is No Light and Happiness

I recently came across quote by Jocko Willink, long time US Navy Seal, martial arts expert, author, and motivational speaker, that accurately worded some of my own thoughts I have recently had. Speaking on the Tim Ferriss Show, Jocko said: “I think that in order to truly experience the light and the bright, you have to see the darkness. I think if you shield yourself from the darkness, you’ll not appreciate— and fully understand— the beauty of life.” This is a profoundly powerful idea especially coming from a man with such experiences as Jocko Willink. Being in the Special Forces, Jocko has likely seen some of the very worst atrocities, cruelties, and barbarism that humanity and the world can promulgate. To be able to have this outlook on life despite what he has seen speaks to the strength of this idea: without sorrow and pain, joy and happiness lose their luster.

I believe that Jocko’s idea here is not something he has realized in spite of his experiences but because of his experiences. Without the opportunity to see the worst of what the world has to offer, how can you fully enjoy the best of what it has to offer. A kind gesture from a stranger will always seem compassionate and polite, but when you have seen people murdering each other over petty notions of righteousness, such as Jocko has, than that compassionate kind deed becomes even more beautiful. Joy cannot exist without sorrow; love cannot exist without grief; beauty cannot exist without hideousness; kindness cannot exist without opposition; and happiness cannot exist without sadness.

This recalls my post about the Danish concept of Hygge, the art of comfort for lack of a better definition. Hygge is critical to the Danish existence and is part of what makes Danes reputedly among the world’s most happy people. As I discussed then: in many ways it defies logic that people from Denmark, an admittedly harsh land particularly in winter, can be home to some of the world’s happiest people. For that matter, all Nordic countries (Iceland, Norway, Sweden, and Finland) are among the happiest, despite what could accurately be considered brutal conditions. From these examples of happiness, we are reminded of an important virtue: to not let yourself be influenced by events outside your control. Given the harsh nature of the climate in such places, it would be easy to become sad and depressed. However, Danes and their Nordic neighbors are able to be happy not merely in-spite of their climate but perhaps because of it. Meik Wiking, founder of the World Happiness Research Institute (talk about a dream job) in Copenhagen noted that the very essence of Hygge, the art of comfort, exists because it stands in contrast to its opposite – what we can simply consider discomfort. Without the harsh Nordic winter, that enjoyable night spent wrapped in wool blankets by the fireside is not as enjoyable, it isn’t as hygge. Without those extremely long winter nights in the far north that cover the world in darkness for 18-20 hours a day, there is less joy and gratitude for the beautiful sunset in summer. Without the biting cold gnawing at your finger tips, there is less hygge, less joy in holding that steaming mug of coffee. By that same token there is less joy and happiness without a contrasting period, time, or memory, of sorrow.

One of the greatest ways to be happy is to be grateful. I know that in my lowest moments, one of the most successful habits I developed that made me feel better was to create a gratitude log where I would force myself to think of something in my life about which I could be happy. An interesting thought on gratitude is that it becomes easier to be grateful when you have an opposing or conflicting idea towards which to compare. One of the things I often think of when doing a gratitude exercise is how lucky I am to have the love of family and good friends. I have always had this, but I didn’t always recognize that fact. At times I would feel loneliness and depression, believing myself to be unloved. Recognizing that I am loved and cared for is a major happiness boost, made doubly effective because I can contrast that feeling to the previous, albeit false, notion of being unloved.

Bruce Lee once said “do not pray for an easy life, pray for the strength to endure a hard one.” For everything in life there is an equal and opposite. To be happy, there must be a sorrow to contrast or compare against. For every triumph, there must be a struggle or an opposing force of some sort. For joy to be fully realized we must be able to know sorrow. The list goes on… Don’t pray for an easy life devoid of pain, sorrow, despair, and hardship. That is unreasonable, we are wise enough to know that suffering in life is inevitable. Understand that to fully enjoy the best of emotions and feelings you must be willing to experience the worst and the lowest. If you have never felt pain, sadness, or loneliness, how will you ever know what joy, happiness, and love feel like. If you shield yourself from the darkness, you will not fully understand. 

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