Arriving at joy, even when life seems shit
I was 28 and desperately in love; but the relationship was tearing me apart and I couldn’t figure out if I should stay or if I should go. Therapy, religion, my mother—someone needed to give me some answers.
I knew I was unhappy; but would I be happy in the future if I stuck it out or if I pulled chocks and started over with someone new?
There’s a story I remember hearing around that time about happiness or joy and it goes something like this:
A boy is running through the jungle and he’s being chased by tigers. Suddenly, he comes upon a cliff and has no choice but to jump over. He catches himself on a narrow ledge. The bottom of the gorge is hundreds of feet below, there are tigers snarling above.
But then he looks directly in front of him and notices a patch of strawberries growing wild. So he picks one and eats it, savoring how sweet and delicious is this beautiful red strawberry improbably growing on a rocky ledge.
Right, like that's helpful. I'm trying to figure out my LIFE here people!! Should the boy climb up or fall down? And how does this relate to should I break up with him or stay? Super-irritating.
But let's stay with it a moment anyway. This isn't a story about a boy who extricates himself from a dangerous situation. What it is about, to me, is reframing: even in the most dire circumstances, you can still Pause. Take a breath. Arrive. And pluck the strawberry right in front of you.
Joy is everywhere all the time—but we have to choose to see it.
Endurance racing can be like this. You can’t think about what will happen fifty miles from now, when will this just be over. The game is pulling yourself back to What Is Happening Right Now? On the best days, I find a kind of euphoria or joy that isn’t in spite of the suffering, but actually arises out of the suffering. As in, wow, look at what I'm doing right now and I'm not in trouble actually I can just hold this right here and it's so hard but I can do it and I'm going to keep doing it c'mon girl that's it nice nice.
Fighting with your husband can be like this. Maybe you shouldn't have used that tone of voice or maybe he shouldn't have called you names. But what if you could, amidst the tension, take one deep and full and sweet-as-summer-grass breath? As Dolly Parton says in Steel Magnolias: "I'm just screamin' at my husband; I can do that any time!" But you've never seen the sky change color in this way before and you never will again. Maybe you could even step away, spend a few moments reveling in the pleasure of being alone with yourself.
Or a job can be like this. Or sitting in traffic. Or almost anything else.
It's easy to misunderstand the tigers story as a prescription for happy denial. Don't think about your problems! Just pick strawberries!
But I don't think that's it. I think it's rather a recognition that dwelling in the past or worrying about the future can lead to self-neglect such that when the future comes we are ill-prepared. The gorge and the tigers will still be there, but perhaps if I take care of myself in this moment I'll be better able to address that problem at the correct time. The words my husband said can't be unsaid, but maybe I can change how I feel in this moment so that I set myself up for loving resolution rather than hours more of malaise.
I also see awakening to a joyful aspect of the present as different than denial in that the latter typically involves using a distraction to check out of the present; e.g., I can't deal with the tigers, so I'm going to watch Netflix or check my phone (again) or drink a glass-of-wine-the-whole-bottle.
The difference between awakening to the present and employing a distraction to check out of the present is less about the object (a strawberry isn't inherently joyful and checking your phone isn't inherently denial) and more about intention. I intend to be joyful and awake so I'm noticing this object; I intend to not deal with my environment so I'm seeking out this object. After awakening, you feel more joyful and more capable of solving what needs to be solved; after distraction, you feel more numb and have no change in perspective on what needs to be solved.
So what about the man I loved at 28? In the end, I had to leave. I was stuck on a ledge and the environment that needed to change for me to stay was out of my control. I don't regret the breakup; it happened at its inevitable time and it created the space for me to fall in love with Sean and then to know my now kids, the beautiful A and Z.
What I do regret, however, is how much of the love and joy that was there I took for granted and allowed to slide by unnoticed. I loved and was loved, but instead I remained fixated on the misery above and below. I chose being torn up inside because of this grievance or that anxiety about the future, when instead I could have been much happier and exited at the appropriate time with more grace and without adding so much insult and injury.
If you're still here with me and wrestling with your own relationship or job or whatever, the simplest I can offer is this:
You already know if you should stay or go. And if you don’t, it’s not yet the time for you to know; so wait. And while you wait, you might as well pick strawberries.