All of life is a struggle to balance the happy and the sad. To feel all of both, because anything less comes at a cost.
Some people can compartmentalize feelings, and it is an enviable “skill.” Until you get closer to them, and realize that sadness cannot be ignored forever. The price gets higher the longer you defer payments. And I have been that person at times; even though I tend towards the melancholy, I have also avoided the purity and depth of grief that certain human wounds demand. It is easier to be sad for the dead possum on the side of the road than it is to be sad for the younger me inside of myself, than it is to fully sit with a lifetime’s worth of grief and let it have its time in the limelight.
Most people find one side of feelings to be more accessible than the other. Enjoyment can mask pain. Or joy can elicit a deep dread, some longtime learned sense that a plot twist is lurking around the corner. Sadness can protect us from the naked, vulnerable feeling of being deeply excited about something in a world where history has shown us that nothing lasts. Sadness can also unearth feelings buried so deeply that our minds and bodies have tried to repress forever. But everything has a cost.
Like shrapnel buried deep beneath the surface, the skin may heal, but there is a deep injury that our selves will never truly absorb.
This theme is so prevalent in our lives lately; with a horrific war raging in Ukraine, with little-mentioned wars flaring up all over the world, how can we be happy? How can I send a marketing email from my small business, how can I post an instagram story smiling with my dog while my friend in Kyiv is posting pictures sleeping in a subway station with his wife and their dog?
In a way, I’ve lived my whole life grieving the wars of the world, keeping a grimace in my soul to show that I haven’t forgotten the pain of the tragic news stories I’ve read or the animals I’ve seen suffering. I tiptoe around snails on wet sidewalks. My heart spent an entire night sunken when a girlfriend unwittingly stepped on a cricket while we walked on a sidewalk one summer evening. She is a good soul–so good, in fact, that I struggled to accept the ease and joy she brought into my life because of the unmetabolized apprehension I feel when excitement arises in my life. She didn’t mean to. I didn’t change my behavior or say anything, but somewhere deep inside, I mourned the short and chaotic life of that cricket for far too long. And she loved me for my deep connection to all creatures great and small. It’s just that now she doesn’t, because I let that mournful love keep me frosted over for too long.
I have always mourned the short and chaotic life of the ants and birds of the world, have always thought about the horrible ways humans treat one another. It is easy to carry this horror around. It is a type of grief that asks little of me but sitting with a certain discomfort that I have a set understanding of. The discomfort of a broken world is easier for me to reckon with than the discomfort of falling for someone. The consuming sadness of a war is a good way to avoid the implacable sadness of a soul that’s never bravely said what it wants, let alone admitted that it doesn’t have those things.
We have only so many days. And while it is impossible to live a full life in denial of pain, it is equally impossible to live a full life in constant vigil. I see the horrific images in Ukraine, and I see a buddy there going back to work to roast coffee for the millions of people who have chosen to stay. I see him and his wife taking their beautiful dog to the park to play with other dogs during a lull in air raids. I understand that there are people in the world who “have it worse than me,” and yet if I stick with this line of thinking for too long, I wind up grieving everything and feeling so racked with guilt that I will never enjoy the very things that supposedly mean I have it good. The line between gratitude and guilt is blurry, and it is a hallmark of the western Christian industrial complex.
It is lately, in the face of such great kindness and the loss of such beautiful and irreplaceable connections, that I find myself confronted with a truth that’s eluded me my whole life. A truth that therapists assure me often takes people many decades longer to fully internalize, even if they “more successfully” fake it than I do along the way: we have to be all the way happy when we have those gifts, and all the way sad when our stories call for it. We have to understand what we want and then to bravely name it. We have to speak to our past and present selves the way we speak to younger siblings and other souls we love wholly. Even now, I wish I could go back and tell my ten-year-old self one thing, my eighteen-year-old self something else, and even my two-month-ago self the most important thing of all.
That lingering longing has colored my writing and my life for years, and many people find it relatable. Yet, we cannot stay in that posture of curious, bittersweet pining forever. We will hold on too loosely to things that deserve to be held tightly. We will cling too tightly to a (false) sense of control that should be given loose reins. As I continue to explore that draw of the wild spaces, the places we humans label as “empty,” the way it feels to get out there and feel both totally free and an echoing emptiness, I feel a clarity drilling through the dusty haze.
It says, you must recognize what you have while it is in front of you. I am good at doing this with Hank, contemplating how short his wild and beautiful life is, staying energized and grateful when my lazy mind might prefer to cut the walk short or snap at him for simply being a dog. Even so, sometimes I get complacent. It is harder to do this in the realm of humanity, where people you still love have also caused you immense hurt. Where people you now love are changing your DNA, but you are still wrestling with the very real fear that they could wake up tomorrow and change their mind and walk out the door. Where you have something special and good and you are so afraid of losing it that you won’t speak up and risk any change to the nervous status quo that could make it so much better, out of the fear that it could also make it worse.
The fear and mistrust of joy is a very natural human response to an illogical world. Good people suffer immensely. Bad actors go unpunished. Whatever god may be up there seems to “allow” horrors beyond our comprehension. We fall in love and then watch it fall apart. We love riding our bikes, and then we get hit by a car while out riding with friends, and our body never forgets the feeling of very-nearly dying doing something so innately life-affirming and fun. Our hobbies become so entangled with our social lives that we start to resent and dread something pure solely because of the messy ways people behave.
Over time, the complexity of life teaches some of us to be leery of joy. It teaches some of us to focus on the pain that we think other people are ignoring, because surely someone has to keep a vigil for the lost. Maybe, deep down, we are keeping a vigil for ourselves. For the plummeting fear that we won’t be remembered for long when we meet some arbitrary fate. For never naming the connection we long for, and so when we finally have it, we still don’t acknowledge it, and eventually that connection rightfully walks away because it is tired of waiting. In this narrative, we subconsciously create confirmation bias for the way we view the world. Nothing good lasts. Maybe that’s because some part of us makes it so. Maybe some part of us is scared of embracing the fleeting nature of our temporary forever. So we continue chopping it into pieces, contextualizing grief, focusing on pain because it is easier to wrestle with than fear.
A lot of people exist somewhere along the spectrum of unmetabolized grief. Many of us won’t recognize that until finally something happens that is impossible to ignore. Pills may shortcut our chemical productors and receptors, but they do not bring that grief or fear to the surface in a way that finally sets us free. I have repeated certain tales of my sorrow that are easy to tell because they give me that temporary catharsis without the immense cost of diving all the way in. Repeating those tales pushes people away. It makes the whole world make sense; nobody ever stays close–even though I am the real reason for that. I am lonely but have never named it. Instead I go to the ends of the earth in search of “something,” while really I am simply making myself More Alone and getting better at coping without dealing.
And in times of peace, it’s far too easy to simply let things be as they are, to assume that we have all the time in the world to grow, to change, to magically, slowly become more of what we expect to someday be. This is a great paradox; I carry the weight of a war in my heart and soul every day, yet I never feel the freedom of living amidst a war to set all the past aside and love like there’s no tomorrow.
Now, I watch on Instagram as Igor in Kyiv plays Uno by candlelight in a closet with his wife, Anna. I see the bravery in their romance and the way they are making the most of the adventure, together. It’s something that I’ve learned to do in a much slower and less existentially dramatic way. I have loved and been loved, but I haven’t embraced the fear of being fully known and handing someone the keys to my heart. I’ve been steered by the subconscious fears that keep me at arm’s length, contemplating the bombings somewhere else without honoring what is right in front of me. Not using my kitchen sink for hours at a time because there are a few ants exploring it and I simply cannot imagine my needs being more important than theirs, until all I have is a stack of dirty dishes and a sense of self so minimized that I don’t feel worthy of bothering the bugs, much less of the love I’ve been shown.
There are so many competing truths and pithy sayings. Cut off anyone who doesn’t serve you. True love is irreplaceable. Nothing is black and white. It’s all black and white. I look at the world, all of its colors and shades of grey, and wonder if it is my destiny to simply be destroyed by beauty again and again. To create connections that transform both people, and then to lose them and make it my life’s work to honor the beauty that haunts me in its absence.
I wouldn’t know all that I do now if things hadn’t happened this way. And yet, I would like to apply what I know now to things I lost by not-knowing then. The slow life is a cruel curriculum. But what is the alternative? A fast life, lived fully only because of a constant existential threat?
It is like Flannery O’Connor wrote in A Good Man is Hard to Find, “She would have been a good woman,” The Misfit said, “if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”
This line always resonated with me, but only now do I see just how deeply true it is.
It is this life full of love and opportunity, full of the shocking teacher that is loss and the tender scar of hindsight, that shows us exactly what we are trying to figure out. Sometimes the lessons are right on time, and sometimes we truly do learn them too late. It is unrealistic to say that everything happens for a reason on some sort of cosmically perfect schedule. Sometimes one person gets tired of waiting before the other person is ready, and that inflexible stance breaks something that could’ve mattered forever. Sometimes a bomb falls on your house while you’re asleep and you never get to finish the painting or put away the laundry or call that person you’ve thought about every day for years. Sometimes you get hit by a car on your bicycle and survive, and it is only years later that you realize the small ways that brain injury rewired you to do things you can’t even explain.
There is a war on in many slices of the world. People hungry for power, letting their wounded egos destroy the lives of innocent beings. There are children playing at recess across the street from the coffee shop where I’m writing, birds chattering as they sneak a few crumbs from the neighboring tables. There is a war on in my mind, between the gratitude that loss has taught me to feel and the sting of mourning what my imperfect self simply didn’t cling to tightly enough. Every day when I walk Hank, I notice mockingbirds chasing butterflies, hawks tearing apart squirrels, ants dragging caterpillars back to their mounds. There are little wars everywhere, always. I have always seen the heartbreak in these moments and felt it important to contend with them fully.
And I always see the beauty in it all, too. The little details and the triumphs of nature amidst the concrete and steel. The beautiful ways people hold the door for each other, the ways we all stop to admire a noteworthy sunset. It’s just that it’s so much harder to celebrate and cling to the beauty, because I have always been the type of person who fears that clinging to things suffocates them. Who fears that laughing too loudly makes me a target for that type of tragic loss that always seems to target the bravely happy. I have a pathological mistrust of joy, because our over-evolved human brains are way too good at creating self-defense mechanisms that ultimately do little more than sabotage our own souls’ desires.
As I wrestle with whether to celebrate joy publicly while Ukraine is being bombarded, I watch people in Ukraine loving, dancing, laughing, crying, fighting fiercely for what they believe in. As I wrestle with whether I can ever regain all that I have lost because I wasn’t committed or joyful enough while I had it, I see that the only way forward is brave joy and pure grief, feelings that don’t try to shortcut their fullness. Certain losses are deeply sad, and there is no way around that. Certain things are so beautiful that they deserve celebration every day, not the nervous grip that is afraid of losing something we love so much that we begin to prepare ourselves for inevitable pain before ever fully surrendering to joy.
It is exasperating because I feel like I could explain what I’ve done and repair so many damaged connections. I think many of us fall into this position, of knowing that it doesn’t have to be this way, while wrestling with the fact that the other has steeled themself over against us and no longer cares. We wish we could move somewhere or love someone or do something. And the truth is, we can. I think of the way I compared notes on a lost love’s friend who lives trapped by their family obligations, never fully actualizing themselves or making the bold moves they so often pine over. We talked about it with such prescient wisdom, such deep empathy, such a sense of forlorn sadness for this person and what could be. Inside of that conversation, I only half-recognized myself in that friend we were discussing. The conversation was the type of deep exploratory wisdom that I crave in my life, and it was so natural that I took it for granted in a way. I don’t think of myself as someone who doesn’t recognize beauty, and yet I became accustomed to it and forgot to water those flowers as often as I should have.