Absolute Value

Excerpted from The Prophet, by Kahlil Gibran:

Then a woman said, “Speak to us of Joy and Sorrow.”
And he answered:
Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.
And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears.
And how else can it be?
The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.
Is not the cup that hold your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter’s oven?
And is not the lute that soothes your spirit, the very wood that was hollowed with knives?
When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy.
When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.
Some of you say, “Joy is greater than sorrow,” and others say, “Nay, sorrow is the greater.”
But I say unto you, they are inseparable.
Together they come, and when one sits alone with you at your board, remember that the other is asleep upon your bed.
Verily you are suspended like scales between your sorrow and your joy.
Only when you are empty are you at standstill and balanced.
When the treasure-keeper lifts you to weigh his gold and his silver, needs must your joy or your sorrow rise or fall.

The Prophet is among my top three favorite books. Gibran’s language is poetry and his philosophy has become foundational to my own. The above excerpt, in particular, is what originally captured me.

The concept of a link between joy and suffering seemed immediately and profoundly true to me. In my own, less poetic parlance, I like to think that they exist on a graph of absolute value.


In this way of thinking, joy and suffering are neither good nor bad. They may be enjoyable or not, but they exists purely as an absolute reflection of the other; to deepen our capacity for both. Stated in simpler terms: The deeper the pain I endure, the greater my capacity for joy. In my times of deepest strife, this knowledge has brought me comfort.

This is also the foundation through which I view others. It’s not uncommon for me to see someone and think: In this moment, that person is happier/sadder than I am. It’s one of the ways I organize the world, because my nature is to meet people where they are.

Sometimes, if someone is happier than I am, I might wish that I were happier. Sometimes, if someone is sadder, I might feel fortunate for being happy. I am not proud of either of these responses. It seems more honorable to feel joy for joy and solidarity for suffering. In these moments, I am reminded that our joy and suffering are one, inseparable. I am reminded that we should rejoice in our capacity to feel either. It is strange to me, then, how often people try to curate these feelings in themselves.

There are some for whom depression is a sickness. It is not of these people I speak. Their conditions deserve our understanding and our empathy and the best treatment we, as a scientific and loving species, we can provide. I speak to the rest of us when I say that it is unnecessary to connect one’s experience of a thing with the thing itself. Death is a loss, but the sadness for this loss is a celebration of happiness. A promotion at work is a gain, but happiness for this gain is a celebration of toil. Why should we seek to mute either of these experiences with drugs or escape or religion?

Perhaps this is all theoretical. I did not rejoice in the loss of my father, or when my friends passed away. I did not celebrate his life as my dog’s feeble frail body went limp in my arms. In those moments, I was raw. Undone. It was only in retrospect, given my expansive capacity for joy, that I look to these events as the knives that hollowed the wood for the lute that soothes my soul.

Absolute value, then, is an absolute value and for that, I am contented.

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