Last night I was visiting family, and we decided to watch what would turn out to be one of the most suspenseful movies we’ve seen in a long time. Why? Well, the major problem turned out to be that nothing went wrong.
First of all, three very young children set out to maneuver a rickety homemade raft across a lake … and none of them drown. There was a very old, arthritic dog … that didn’t die. Two of the lead characters, an African-American man who used a wheelchair and an able-bodied white woman who lived in the deep south … did not experience any challenges or conflicts in their evolving relationship, and fell madly in love within three months of meeting each other. Disagreements, when they did arise, … only brought people closer together.
The longer the banal plot line of the story stretched without a crisis, the more agitated we became. Then it happened: our groaning complaints about the lack of riveting action (I.E. terrible stuff befalling people) turned into hesitant, nervous exclamatory pleas for an unknown and obviously hostile future to please not dump its doom onto these people whose lives were so precariously prosperous. “Oh god, I won’t be able to handle it if that dog dies.” “Those kids are going to drown, I just know it.” “Someone’s going to get their heart broken and be emotionally shattered.” “I can’t take it! What if…” …
I sat there eating popcorn, reflecting as if from a distance on how absurd human beings, including myself, can be. (I admit to feeling just as threatened by all that good fortune, which was obviously going to turn out to be too good to be true.) What a fascinating phenomenon, to expect vicarious terror to temporarily take us out of ourselves, only to realize that we are terrified to feel joy. Suddenly, the movie seemed far more interesting, not because of what was happening in it, but because of what was happening to us. The characters’ happiness grew in direct proportion to our misery. Our own fears prevented us from sharing in their happiness.
We know life is ephemeral, that time is fragile, that change is inevitable. We’ve been prepared, to the best of human ability, to respond in a crisis of tragedy. But we barely recognize the crisis we experience when we are surrounded by love and truly feel at peace. We grow up expecting the next shoe to drop, the next tragedy to hit.
At least I did. I remember a particular day when I was about to graduate from Stanford. I felt completely at home in myself and completely content where I was. As far as my twenty-two-year-old self was concerned, I could be a student with this wonderful group of friends in this beautiful city, living in the space between the potential of a dreamed future and the lived experience of launching it, for the rest of my life. I was caught in an experience of pure joy at what was the case, this very moment. I loved it all. And then someone reminded me of the impending changes I would soon be facing, that all my friends would leave and that there were many rough, gnarly, tragic, and potentially devastating moments to come in my future, and I was an anxious terrified mess for months afterward.
That person was absolutely right. I probably don’t even have to tell you of how, in those subsequent ten years, I have lived through strained awkwardness, gnarly situations, terrible grief, gnawing loneliness, discrimination, pain. I could go on, but adversity befalls every life. The question is not, ‘how can I prevent suffering from ever happening?’ The question is, ‘Why let the fear of inevitable, yet unpredictable suffering silence my laughter, stifle my wonder, strangle my joy, stop me from reaching out in love and cause me to withdraw and close down instead?’
Why, indeed. Bitterness is child to a constricted soul who shies from the vulnerability needed to love and be loved, out of fear of the risk of being hurt. People who can’t experience their own joy because they so fear the potential immanent loss of the good all around them, come to resent and compete with those who seem to be able to fully take in moments of connection and contentment. And how can you author your own life if you allow yourself to be ruled by the tyranny of anticipation and your current fictions about the future?
You can’t, of course. You might be so worried about the possibility that something might happen to your kids that you fail to fully be present as you tuck them into bed at night. You might be so afraid of losing a dog or a cat that you only realize after they’re gone how you could have fiercely loved them, but held back instead. Most of us don’t ever fully realize how many beautiful, vibrant, cherished moments we miss while we’re preoccupied with fears of what isn’t there.
We learn to embrace–accept, acknowledge, attend to– the shadows of our soul, our inner children, our false beliefs, the fragmented rejections we sometimes glimpse in the mirror. And yet I am left wondering, long after the movie ended, what would happen if we learned to hold a compassionate space for the shadow side of joy. I wonder about the freedom in finally being seen, the strength born in a person when the risks in reaching out are worth every second of being fully alive.