A Severe Mercy featured

Eucatastrophe: The Paradox of Joy and Sorrow

6:00:00 AMRose Deemer


“...We kissed each other, a kiss that was pure bliss because of the peril and pain that had torn us. There would be other fights in future years--we were both strong-willed…but always the reconciliation in each other’s arms would be such heaven that we wondered whether the joy wasn’t worth the agony. The heights and depths.”
~Sheldon Vanauken, A Severe Mercy, (34)

I don’t know about you, but when I first read the words of Sheldon Vanauken quoted above I got goosebumps. “...The reconciliation in each other’s arms would be such heaven that we wondered whether the joy wasn’t worth the agony.” Wow. Talk about a marriage. Talk about love. And talk about a profound and paradoxical question: can any joy, however great, really be worth enduring a great agony? Vanauken clearly believed so, as he articulates in the prologue to his book:

“...If he wanted the heights of joy, he must have, if he could find it, a great love. But in the books again, great joy through love seemed always to go hand in hand with frightful pain. Still...the joy would be worth the pain--if, indeed, they went together. If there were a choice...between, on the one hand, the heights and the depths and, on the other hand, some sort of safe, cautious middle way, he for one, here and now chose the heights and the depths. Since then...he had had the love. And the joy--what joy it had been! And the sorrow. He had had--was having--all the sorrow there was. And yet, the joy was worth the pain.” (18)

Meditating on this paradoxical relationship between joy and pain, J.R.R. Tolkien, Oxford scholar and author of The Lord of the Rings, addresses this issue under a term of his own invention: eucatastrophe. In his book Tolkien: Man and Myth, Joseph Pearce quotes at length from several letters and essays of Tolkien’s in which he fleshes out this concept. In one of these letters, Tolkien defines eucatastrophe as “the sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears…” (103) In his essay “On Fairy Stories”, Tolkien develops this concept further, as Pearce relates:

“ ‘The eucatastrophic tale is the true form of fairy-tale, and its highest function.’ This good catastrophe, this ‘sudden joyous “turn” ’ representing a ‘miraculous grace, never to be counted on to recur’, did not deny the existence of ‘dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure’. On the contrary, ‘the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance’. Rather, it denied the ‘universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief’...”(104)
Is Tolkien saying that the possibility of pain and sorrow is necessary in order for there to be true joy in this world? This seems like a contradiction; after all, we’re used to thinking of joy and sorrow as complete opposites. But, if you think about it, he’s right. Why are you so happy when you ace that calculus final? Because you could have failed it, but you didn’t. If it was absolutely guaranteed that you would pass, you wouldn’t have experienced the stress of studying, the butterflies in your stomach, the final elation and relief when you saw that you didn’t bomb it this time. But because you could have failed it, by studying for the final you took a risk, went out on a limb, put a piece of your heart on the line. Two possible outcomes awaited you: joy at your success, or sorrow at your failure. Rather than opting for the easy middle road (just dropping the class rather than working hard to study, or putting in minimal effort and forcing yourself not to care), you chose the joys and the sorrows, the highs and the lows, the heights and the depths.


So, in the end, you have a choice. You can choose to live the “safe, cautious middle way”, as Vanauken calls it: an “Epicurean” life, not as the modern world understands the term (an uninhibited, “live while we’re young” sort of pleasure-seeking), but rather as the ancients understood it when they coined the term: a life as free from pain as possible due to the severing of all connections to people or things which might cause one suffering. Or, on the other hand, you can choose a life lived with and for others, a life of risks and courage and pain, a life of laughter and tears, heartache and piercing joy, love and self-sacrifice and communio personarum.

But here’s the problem with the Epicurean option: you can’t run from pain forever. It’ll get you eventually: a car accident, a death in the family, or something as small and commonplace as stubbing your toe. Heck, even just one wrong step when going down the stairs and you could be in the hospital with multiple broken limbs. So, just as Pascal wagered that you’d be better off believing in God than not believing in Him, I wager that you’re better off embracing all the highs and lows that life has to give you and living them to the fullest, than simply numbing yourself to all pain and discomfort and thereby blocking out the greatest and most fulfilling joys of life as well. You’ll suffer quite a lot, of course. But as the saying goes, “ ‘tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all”. And let’s face it: your life is either going to be a eucatastrophe or just a plain old catastrophe. And you have the power to choose which one.

In the end, I think it’s J.R.R. Tolkien who has the last word here. I think that his beliefs regarding this strange paradox of joy and sorrow, of eucatastrophe, are expressed most succinctly and beautifully in the last words of Aragorn, one of the main characters of Tolkien’s magnum opus, The Lord of the Rings. As he lays dying, in a heart-rending scene depicted in the appendices of The Return of the King, Aragorn addresses his wife, Arwen, in some of the most simple and yet most haunting words I have ever read.
In sorrow we must go, but not in despair. Behold! We are not bound forever to the circles of the world, and beyond them is more than memory. Farewell!” (1074)

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