An impartial outsider might think that joy is an easy, welcome feeling – while sadness or grief is something to be avoided at all costs. But when, in a recent interview, Dr. Brené Brown said that, “joy is probably the most difficult emotion to feel – it’s hard to feel joy because we are so keenly aware that it’s fleeting,” she tapped into something that resonates so deeply and, I think, rings true for many of us. And it holds us back. Everyday.
If Dr. Brown is right, then feeling joy, allowing ourselves to sink into the deliciousness of a moment – fleeting as it may be, as it inevitably is – is a brave act. And yet we seem to have no problem wallowing in the absence of joy. Sadness and grief and despair – when it hits us it swallows us whole – and even though it is so painful, there is something about its depth and hold on us that, ironically I think, provides us with an easy place to land. It’s not easy in the sense that it feels good – no, just the opposite – it feels so overwhelmingly bad that we become prisoners of that feeling. We spend so long trying to avoid pain and hardship that when it hits it takes the wind out of our sails, it knocks our knees out from under us and we are forced to submit. We wail, we sob, we beat our breasts, we scream and throw and break things and in that moment we are given permission to lose ourselves, all sense of ‘right and wrong’ behavior, all we know about being human, all these rules and regulations are lifted in the presence of despair – and in that there is some kind of perverse freedom. When we are undone by grief we are untethered – allowed to lose ourselves and run amok in the swirling storm of sadness. It is terrible – it is scary – and it is liberating.
When what we are struggling with is not a life or death situation we can find a home in sadness that can be strangely comforting. A breakup, for instance, can be emotionally devastating but the fact that the pain is fleeting gives us all the more freedom to wallow in each and every moment and who can blame us? We are too sad to go about the daily struggle of adulthood – and we are allowed. We can call out sick from work, we can withdraw from social obligations, we can retreat to our beds and find comfort in a pint – or three – of ice cream or endless watchings of romantic comedies as we pull tissue after tissue out of the box and proclaim that we will never meet our own prince (or princess) charming. But somewhere in the back of our minds I think we know that that is not true.
It’s like Emmylou Harris sang in Boulder to Birmingham, “the hardest part is knowing I’ll survive” – that there will be a time when we are whole again, where we can climb out of bed and face the real world. It’s fleeting – even when it doesn’t feel like it is. And knowing that allows us to sink deep into the mud and muck of each tragically terrifying feeling. I’ll wager (and I think Dr. Brown is saying) that the same awareness is true when we find joy. We know that it won’t last and so – rather than allow the feelings to wash over ourselves we shoot our arms out to the side and try to hold up the walls – try to make everything stop, stand still, stayjustlikethis so we can feel this way forever. Brown contends that we are too scared to sink into joy because we fear the loss of that very emotion – which is, as it turns out, absolutely inevitable. As an old therapist of mine told me once – “that’s why they are called ‘eMOTIONS’ Kaila – because they move”. So yes, joy is fleeting – just as grief and anger are too.
I read an article recently that talked about how often we make choices out of fear. So many of us avoid taking what Martha Beck discusses as ‘leaps of faith’ in our lives because we are scared of the free fall. Even if we aren’t in love with the life we live now, there is comfort in the familiar, and there is no pit in the stomach that comes with the fall after the leap. I recently made such a leap – deciding to move out of the community I’ve called home for 14 years. It was a decision I put off for a long time because it was easier to be stuck and stagnant but comfortable than it was to risk the familiarity and move – literally and figuratively – out of my comfort zone.
Lots of people exist like this because, as Brown says, “it is easier to live disappointed than feel disappointed”. But if we remember that every feeling is fleeting – every emotion will move through us eventually – then maybe we could get on with the business of wallowing in the joy, of taking risks and daring to step off the cliff of comfortability. That takes guts. It also takes faith. Because as it turns out – and as we know deep down in our souls but so often find it impossible to remember – we always survive those leaps of faith. As Martha Beck wrote, “You’ll live through every leap except the big one at the end. And even if you never leap, you’ll die anyway.”
So, my dear readers, what do you have to lose?