All human beings have complex emotions, especially in complicated times. At this moment, we all have things we are sad about and things we are glad about. Every emotion tells us something true--but not everything that is true. There is healing and wisdom to be found in embracing our emotional complexity exactly as it is, not dramatizing, romanticizing, or wallowing in our mood swings and also not repressing ourselves. We don't have to feel guilty about our positive feelings when bad things happen, and we don't have to feel guilty about our negative feelings just because somebody else in the world has it worse.
Instead, we can practice gratitude for all the lessons our feelings teach us about what we need to do and how to make it happen. This peak pandemic winter (with the spring just weeks away), I am learning how to pay better attention to the full spectrum of my emotional responses to life so that I can accept the truths they bring me and the tools they provide me to care for myself and others.
What I'm sad about:
The deaths of friends and acquaintances. The last person I lost was an old friend I'd lost touch with for a few years. When I heard about his death and the shocking, violent way his life ended, I overslept for two nights filled with nightmares and sleepwalked through the day between. After the second night, I felt better. I thanked my mind and body for guiding me into my necessary process of grieving and carrying me safely through to the other side.
Mental and physical chronic issues that cause me and my husband to suffer acutely from time to time. I thank these experiences for teaching us better self-care, coping, and partner-supporting skills that continue to help us confront challenges with strength and resilience. I savor the comfortable times and use them to nurture wellness and find what Jonathan Van Ness calls gorgeous “little pockets of joy” even on the worst days.
Over three decades of managing an anxiety disorder through many life stages, I've learned how to translate what my symptoms are telling me. When I have an episode, my head fills with persistent thoughts that are not true: that I've done something terrible (I never know what) and that now I have enemies (I never know who they are) who hate me so much that my whole family is at risk because of me.
And sometimes I punish myself subconsciously for actual lapses in empathy. A few days ago, I heard someone say in a recording online, "You never get over the loss of a pet," and I snort-laughed out loud and rolled my eyes. I said, "I've gotten over the deaths of many pets. That's just life." That night, I dreamed so vividly of my childhood cat that I cried the next day.
When I told my husband about it as evidence that I'm going crazy, he touched me over my heart, in the place where my Fred gave me a scratch scar when he was a kitten and I was a toddler, and he said, "It's okay. Sometimes I dream about my pet fish." He also reminded me that this is a lasting symptom of childhood trauma, which you also never "get over" but which you can manage. He then reminded me to take my meds, which helped me to sleep beautifully the next night and wake up well.
Other nights, I jolt awake from the beginning stages of sleep in something like an adult night terror, convinced of something that has no basis in reality and overwhelmed with the horror of it: that my child has been killed, that I have divorced my husband, that I have murdered someone. At these times, the symptom is telling me something that, on the surface, is completely untrue. But the appearance of symptoms is telling me something true: that the shadow has come upon me again, whether I noticed it in the daytime or not, whether I have identified a "good enough" reason for it or not, and that it is time for me to respond in all the ways I have learned to take care of myself.
Going back to JVN’s “pockets of joy”: I find that I am so emotionally raw in this state that I can get deeply lost in a book or a film or a song, so thoroughly that I feel like I've gone away on a physical journey after reading or watching or listening, and that I've come back changed. There is something exquisitely safe and shameless and satisfying about crying over fictional characters' lives and other artistic abstractions that strike a chord in me deeper than conscious analysis. There is a soothing, surreal intimacy in that astral contact between artistic creator and creative receiver. In every field of pain there are particular pleasures for those who seek them.
The suffering of the world and my limited ability to help. I thank these times for the greater compassion and patience they have taught me to hold for other people and for myself. I am sadly grateful for the awe of natural destruction that the pandemic has given me to understand that the suffering of the world is truly beyond the control or responsibility of any little person. And that a very small kindness can make all the difference to someone.
The loss of inadvertent social contact. I thank this unusual experience for revealing to me that there are, in fact, things I value about small talk and fleeting interactions with strangers and casual acquaintances. I hope I'll never take them for granted, or worse, wish that I could avoid them forever--again.
What I'm glad about:
My marriage. My marriage is not hard work because we both do hard work on ourselves. My marriage is a haven of bliss and comfort and joy, and so is the sweet pandemic year we've spent with our child before she grows up apart from us. I have the loving little family of my happiest dreams.
The continued health of our immediate family and closest loved ones. We have given each other lots of moral support to make tough decisions to keep us all safe from disease before we receive our vaccines. I miss spending real-life quality time with people beyond my husband and daughter, but I am proud that we are making good decisions for the long term.
Expanded rest time and pleasurable solitude. In my adult life, I've never had more time to sleep, snuggle, read old books, write, doodle, dance, binge watch nostalgic TV, and take bubble baths. This isn't how I want to live forever, but I will enjoy it while it lasts.
International film releases to streaming services! And plenty of time to write a blog post about them.
Social progress and its representation in entertainment media. After those eggs get cracked, sometimes we get to have an omelet. Progress may seem slow, but it is real, and we have many warrior women of previous centuries to thank. During my "time travels" through historical films, I watched The Glorias, an uplifiting tour of Gloria Steinem's career in effectively promoting intersectional feminism, from her mid-20th-century beginnings to the present. My favorite part of the movie was Lorraine Toussaint's performance as Florynce "Flo" Kennedy, known for her no-nonsense battle cry, "Don't agonize, organize!" I felt 99% less sorry for myself when she spoke the lines, "I never stop to wonder why I'm not like other people. The mystery to me is why more people aren't like me." I want to see a biopic about this woman next!
I would love to have Flo's confidence and impact in the world, though I know I need to find my own path to it, because I function better behind the scenes than on the stage. I think that the key for everyone, no matter our personality or unique set of gifts, lies in honesty, in knowing ourselves and knowing how we can best affect others by expressing our authentic selves through our greatest gifts.
Some self-centered perfectionists, obsessed with rightness of appearance, hide their truth behind an artificial veneer that dissociates them from empathy for both others and self. The antidote is to share a little more of the mess and the mayhem, the squalor and the sadness inherent in the life of a person who works hard to present that image. There is pride to be found in caring and striving.
While some people fear that others won’t like them if they’re not perfect, other people fear the envy and spite of those who don’t want to see them doing too well. Both kinds of people hide their truth to please others who don’t have their best interests at heart.
Some bleeding-heart activists, obsessed with wrongness of injustice, hide their truth behind sanctified victimhood and pity for the world, ashamed of their own privileges and gifts. They suck the joy from other people's lives and their own, sowing despair instead of hope. The antidote is to share a little more pleasure in simple joys, a little more empowerment, some examples of real self-care, some inspiration to be the change. There is abundant power to be found in realizing our own desires.
I aim to speak truth without whining. I don't want to ignore the bad, but I don’t want to lose sight of manifesting the good either. I am not helpless; my greatest contribution to the world will be something greater than complaining that someone else needs Jesus.
As Flo Kennedy once said,
I normally find that people who complain about apathy are frequently people who themselves are apathetic and really need an excuse for their own apathy.
So I practice listening to my bad feelings telling me to get off my ass and letting my good feelings tell me where to move it.
For more inspiring guidance on how to accept reality but not the status quo, how to keep our eyes on the prize and know where we want to go, I like to witness the ever-unfolding, cosmorganic brilliance of contemporary feminist writer adrienne maree brown, who calls upon her devotees: "If You're Good, Say You're Good."
May it be so.