How can we enjoy pleasure while staying present with grief and suffering?

As we welcome Spring in the Bay Area, our hearts simultaneously hold grief and pleasure. Allowing ourselves to welcome these conflicting emotions deepens our resilience and healing, writes Preston Vargas.

The unmistakable signs of spring have arrived. The natural world is greening, warming, and waking up. Yet with the arrival of this spring can come so many conflicting emotions. For so many of us, our bodies are called to joy by the smell of springtime jasmine, the early morning songs of returning birds, the sweet honey of bustling bees and the warm light of lengthening days. 

However, our hearts might be weary and heavy as we Shelter in Place and witness the impacts of an illness that has touched every community. Caught between the beauty of an emerging spring and the grief of a pandemic, something akin to guilt might even arise. I’ve asked myself, “How can I stay present? How can I still engage in life’s pleasures when so many people are suffering? What do I do with the guilt that arises from surviving?” 

Recently, in the Black Brothers Esteem (BBE) virtual (audio) book group Brothers Who Read, group members gathered on a Zoom call to listen to a story called “In the Life” by Becky Birtha. The story centered on the character Pearl, who had lost her partner, Grace, some thirteen years ago. 

It was heartening to hear how Pearl worked with her grief. If the scent of honeysuckle wafted on the breeze, Pearl would joyfully drink in the smell and let it fill her with Grace’s presence. When the peach trees ripened, Pearl would marvel in their beauty and how she recalled Grace tending them with care. Pearl seemed to sink deep into the physical sensations of pleasure so that she could be present with both her love of life and her grief of her beloved. 

In this way, she emerged from grief as a living embodiment of the most cherished moments of Grace’s life. Pearl didn’t express guilt for finding pleasure in her life after Grace because every act of pleasure was in honor of Grace. She chose to invoke Grace in every act she could. 

I find it so fitting that our character is named Pearl. A pearl is created out of discomfort and perhaps pain. When an oyster feels its insides being torn by bits of sand the oyster coats the sand in a substance called nacre. Over time, and many layers of nacre, the oyster transforms the painful sand into a jewel, a Pearl. 

Our community knows the pain of grief and survivor’s guilt. Yet we are also capable of creating nacre to transform that which pains us. We are capable of reframing and transforming those feelings. Granted, the process of grieving is full of healthy emotions. So, I’m not talking about a spiritual bypass. On the contrary, I’m talking about sitting in my window and sinking so deeply into the present moment that I allow the heat and light of the afternoon sun to overwhelm me, to let the beauty of a ray of sun bring me to tears for those who are still falling ill, to grieve for those who may never feel its warmth, to acknowledge any guilt I have, to revel in the pleasure that I am currently present, and allow the heat of the sun to flow across my dark brown skin as way of affirming life and loved ones. 

Sometimes the process of grief is so fresh that we have little capacity to reframe our experience. In these moments we might simply make it through. Yet, at some point we may discover we regain an ability to choose how we perceive the world. 

What happens to us if we choose to perceive the blossoming spring as nature’s indifferent attitude towards the challenges our communities face? I gather many of us would become despondent, bitter, and numb. Fear, anxiety, cynicism or guilt might mire us down. So let us choose to think and behave in a manner that deepens our capacity to simultaneously hold grief and pleasure. 

What if we chose to perceive every budding tree or jasmine-laden breeze as the very World itself enticing us to live more fully? What if we acted as if every piece of ripe fruit or birdsong was an invitation from the world to sink more deeply into our bodies and be fully present? What if every opportunity for joy and pleasure were invitations from one another to acknowledge our emotions and offer up our experiences in honor of those who’d give anything to be healthy right now? I gather that we would be able to create our pearls and bring in grace. 

“This is about our community, our power, and our liberation. 

Taking the African American Gay, Bisexual, Same-Gender-Loving,

and Gender Variant experience to brave new heights.” 

Black Brothers Esteem

-The Brothers Pledge

About the author

Preston Vargas, PhD

Preston Vargas, PhD is the Director of Black Health.