Struggling Against Joy

Why on earth would someone resist the feeling of joy? In Chapter 9 of Till We Have Faces, Orual ascends the Mountain near Glome. As she travels up the mountain, she experiences the beauty of the landscape and begins to feel joy welling up within her. Somewhat surprisingly, she struggles against this rising sensation and resists it.

As I read this chapter in anticipation of recording this week’s episode, I spent quite some time thinking about Orual’s struggle and pondered her reasons for resisting such a wonderful feeling. I was reminded of the work of Brené Brown, a leading psychologist on the subjects of “vulnerability” and “shame”. I think Dr. Brown’s work can help us understand Orual’s interior conflict as she climbs the Mountain...

Dress Rehearsing Tragedy

Dr. Brown offers one possible explanation as to why a person might resist joy.

“Joy is the most vulnerable emotion we experience, and if you cannot tolerate joy, what you do is you start dress rehearsing tragedy.” - Brené Brown

Dress rehearsing tragedy, she explains, is imagining something bad is going to happen when, in reality, nothing is wrong.

“How many of you have ever stood over your child while they’re sleeping and thought, ‘Oh my God, I love you’ — and then pictured something horrific happening? Or woke up in the morning and thought, ‘Oh my gosh, job’s going great. Parents are good. This can’t last.” - Brené Brown

Ultimately, we are afraid of feeling the joy in the moment because hurts from life have taught us that the joy won’t last. So, rather than experience the high and have it ripped away, we think it is better we never allow ourselves to experience it in the first place.

Orual’s Struggle with Joy

We see this perfectly in Orual. As Orual is climbing to the Mountain of the gods where Psyche, her sister, was sacrificed, she experiences something which she finds hard to put into words:

“Now, flung at me like frolic or insolence, there came as if it were a voice – no words – but if you made it into words it would be, ‘Why should your heart not dance?’ It’s the measure of my folly that my heart almost answered, ‘Why not?’ I had to tell myself over like a lesson the infinite reasons it had not to dance. My heart to dance? Mine whose love was taken from me, I, the ugly princess who must never look for other love…” - Till We Have Faces (Chapter 9)

Her heart is invited to dance and experience joy, yet she responds by listing all the wounds and hurts she has experienced throughout her life. Put simply, she resists the joy because of her own brokenness.

Transforming Power of Joy & Beauty

Whether in small ways or big ways, many of us resist joy. We fear the vulnerability which comes with joy as life has taught many of us that vulnerability inevitably leads to pain. Ironically, it is actually by experiencing beauty and joy that much of our brokenness can, in fact, be healed. In Till We Have Faces, Orual actually hints at this when she later reflects upon her experience going up the Mountain:

“Even my ugliness I could not quite believe in. Who can feel ugly when the heart meets delight? It is as if, somewhere inside, within the hideous face and bony limbs, one is soft, fresh, lissom, and desirable.”

Consider the profundity of Orual's question. In the book, she feels more ugly than anyone, and yet she started to feel beautiful when she encountered beauty. She began to feel desirable when she met joy. Unlike her sister, Psyche welcomed that beauty into her life from the beginning, and that made all the difference.

Resisting the Resistance

If experiencing joy is a path to our healing, it's imperative that we resist our resistance to it. If we allow ourselves to be vulnerable with God, and allow His love to enter into us, our wounds can begin to heal.

If we are vulnerable, we will not be immune from pain. However, as Brené Brown teaches, you can’t mute one emotion and expect to keep the flip side of it. You can’t mute pain and keep joy. You won’t be able to experience love if you don’t risk being hurt. Lewis knew this better than anyone:

“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken...To love is to be vulnerable. - The Four Loves (Chapter 6)

Orual had loved Psyche and felt profound pain when the object of her love was taken away from her. Without Psyche, she refuses to experience joy and, in so doing, resists her own healing and the transformation of her ugliness. Lewis tells us what happens long-term when we refuse love:

If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.” - The Four Loves (Chapter 6)

To be vulnerable in life is scary, but the alternative is far, far worse.

God Bless,