Absurd Joy amidst Suffering

Let me lead up to Thoreau’s life of absurd joy by mentioning a recent heartbreaking report from Scandinavia. It’s relevance will become clear.

It’s been officially decided by pollsters that Sweden and Norway are the two happiest countries in the world. The US is ranked 14th and falling. A few weeks ago a photo circulated of two early teens in a Swedish hospital.

These teens are lying on hospital cots, unconscious. The accompanying New Yorker article of a week ago reports that they are two of hundreds of teens dying not from opiate abuse and not from any disease of the body. Their souls are dying.

They are unconscious, and only tubes keep them alive. They have no will to live. They have slipped into the pit, into Sheol, into the land of the dead.

Days earlier they learned they would be deported. We become helpless, hopeless onlookers. Abundant joy is nowhere in sight.


We seem to live in the middle of an infinite or boundless contradiction, an infinite absurdity, if you will.  Deep Joy and deep Suffering suffuse all of death-and-life.

We find this harsh contradiction, “absurd joy,” in the life of Thoreau.

We know from Walden and other writing that he celebrated a joyful life.  And we know from his political writing how much he worked for abolition and detested the evil of slavery.  Less well known is a personal trauma undergone before his writing career was launched. 

Despite what reads like a  joyful life Thoreau underwent first-hand the boundless absurdity of death. He sang the joys of nature. He might have joined Psalm 16:

Make me know the path of life.

Joys overflow in your presence,

Delights flow from Your right hand forever.

But he knew infinite suffering, as well. His writing, his singing, was therapy for the tragic loss of his brother John.

When the brothers were in their mid-twenties, as Henry held him, John died from lockjaw.  Henry had been an uncle to the five year old Waldo Emerson, and a few days after John’s death, Waldo died.

 “Joy is the condition of life,” he writes in one of the earliest of his Journal entries.  

John’s death was excruciating. He doubled backward in death-spasms. Henry held him through it all. A few days after John’s death those terrible symptoms overtook Henry. It was as if Henry would not let his brother die alone, and would follow him into the pit. His body mimicked John’s death. Doctors were baffled.

Like the hundreds of young adults in Sweden, unconscious for no discernible physiological reason, he seemed to have lost the will to live.  Gradually, he recovered but he was convalescent for nearly a month.


Thoreau had an enormous capacity to find joy in life — despite his brother’s death, despite slavery, despite the hanging of John Brown, despite slave-catchers in Concord woods.

This was, in a sense, an “absurd joy,” a joy held against his unblinking knowledge of tragedy. He came to believe that Nature’s life-and-death should be joyously affirmed and stoically mourned. Nature herself mourned the constant dying of her children.

In his indignant essay, “Slavery in Massachusetts,” Thoreau complains that he can no longer take pleasure in his walks. He hears gunshots in the woods as Southern slaveholders pursue their fleeing property.

Then, a miracle occurs. The scent of a swamp Lilly wafts from the waters as he trudges in near despair. It gives him a whiff of paradise, arising bracingly from the muck. It gives him an eff of the ineffable.

For us this is a parable of the inscrutable marriage of heaven and hell. Yet faced with this inscrutable clashing of despair and abundant joy, we have little choice but to side with the singer of song 16, side with Thoreau and with joy.

The Psalm ends,

You will not forsake my life to Sheol,

You won’t let your faithful one see the Pit.

Make me know the path of life.

Joys overflow in your presence,

Delights flow from Your right hand forever.



4 comments on “Absurd Joy amidst Suffering

  1. Bob Fisher says:

    Lovely. Thank you.

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