How can I be happy at a time like this?
I’m home from the Netherlands and mostly over jet lag + the side effects from my COVID shot. As I was sorting through our travel photos, I came across this portrait 👆🏽 taken in 2020.
Looking at that picture you wouldn’t know I was shattered and deeply anxious that day. We were in the early depths of the pandemic and I was wandering the blackness of grief over my father’s death.
I was also experiencing a milestone event: the photoshoot for Mirabai’s senior portraits. My friend, photographer Amy McMullen, was taking photos of Mirabai in front of the murals on Alberta Avenue in NE Portland. (She snapped a couple of me, too.)
Seeing this portrait brought up a defining experience of these last few years: the need to hold conflicting feelings at the same time. That strange sensation of joy (my daughter, a senior!) layered with grief (this pandemic might obliterate her senior year); of levity (Amy brought out our silly sides) paired with anxiety (how close can we stand to each other without masks on?).
Perhaps you can recall a similar time when you juggled incongruous feelings, or when your internal experience didn’t line up with the bigger social narrative. I’m thinking of a friend who, while sharing the struggles of lockdown, also admitted, with some shame, that she missed the family closeness and simplicity of that time. Or another friend who was confused by how, after her kid got settled in college, she was thrilled, relieved and devastated at the same time. Am I allowed to feel all of these feelings?
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Yesterday, I went for my morning walk. The light’s waning here in the Pacific Northwest and the leaves have begun to fall. Winter gloom will soon be upon us, so these walks have a bittersweet quality to them. And yet, a shock of happiness burst forth like a spray of confetti. Not just contentment or cheerfulness; happiness.
Why yesterday, of all days? It was drizzly and cold, and the Fall colors were muted by the overcast sky. I could barely process the horrific news coming out of Israel and Gaza. My feeds were full of pain and rage. I was taking Mom to the doctor later for a troubling medical issue that might require surgery.
And yet, there it was. Happiness. Right there. Alongside the heartbreak and the worry and the paralysis. There was no mistaking it.
How could I be happy right now?
I don’t know. There was no explaining it, because there’s no explanation. There’s simply the fact that we’re multifaceted human beings who feel many things at the same time. It’s confusing, but I’m trying to accept and even embrace this reality rather than judge it.
Happiness hasn’t displaced my sadness or rage or worry. I’m trying to make space for it all, uncomfortable as that is.
It’s worth reminding ourselves that social media flattens and distorts our perception of how “everyone else” feels. Our feeds are algorithmically generated based on what gets us to scroll and purchase; they don’t represent the totality of our friends’ posts, let alone their feelings.
When I look more closely, I see that these disparate emotions are, in fact, expressions of the same thing:
Love is an ingredient in the exquisite melancholy I feel at the start of every fall.
Love fuels my rage at politicians and religious leaders who sow hatred to fortify their own power.
Love is my grief over lost ones and lost dreams.
Love shows up as worry about Mom’s medical difficulties.
Love pushes me to reach out, even if I don’t understand the situation or know the right words. There are no right words.
Love is my gratitude for this improbable moment of a life, for survival.
Yesterday, love also popped up as happiness. And happiness is a potent source of energy I don’t want to waste.
Because in this fragile, hurting world, happiness can be as fleeting as the leaves falling outside my window.
Here’s CharityWatch’s list of top-rated charities providing aid and assistance to the people of Israel & Palestine.
Love’s “shadow side” is at the heart of Susan Cain’s gorgeous book, BITTERSWEET, which I included in this list of reading recommendations in 2022.
If you’re in the Portland area and need a fabulous photographer for an event, portrait session, brand or anything else, contact Amy McMullen. She’s INCREDIBLE.
Mom got good news at the doctor.
How are you? How’s your community? Are your kids asking about Israel and Gaza?
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We had a good conversation with Sam — he’s wary of misinformation and seeking out reputable news outlets and various angles in an effort to educate himself. We’ve started sharing explainers about Middle East geopolitics on a family text thread so we can talk about it from a common base of info. It’s so complex. That said, I’m reminding myself that reaching out doesn’t require knowledge, only willingness to listen.