The Human Waves of Happiness and Pain

I’ve noticed in recent years that our individual happiness and pain (which we all experience throughout life as that is kind of the point of life) goes up and down in waves, but that our waves do not necessarily align with other individuals or with the world as a whole. Tragedy can strike across town on your wedding day, just as you are feeling the happiest you’ve ever felt in your life. You can lose a loved one on a day that your best friend is graduating or giving birth. You can have met the person of your dreams just as your sibling is finally nailing the coffin in their marriage. And it’s hard from both perspectives to be able to be fully present for the other, isn’t it?

There’s the old saying “misery loves company”, but I don’t think that most people willfully feel that way, going out and deliberately trying to ruin other people’s days. Some do (and I know some of those toxic people quite well), but I think most of the time, when you’re down and out, you just can’t help but get caught up in the comparison game. Why is this person so successful when I have the same training/experience? Why is this person’s art or writing selling when the work I’m doing is at least on a comparable level, and I’m barely able to bring in enough to pay for the materials? Why does this person have a solid love relationship and I’m doomed to single life? I experienced this a couple of years ago when my husband and I were the poorest we’ve ever been as adults – seeing friends of ours who were making substantially more money and moving on in adulthood was difficult, having to turn down invites out to eat or drink because we couldn’t afford to was humbling, to say the least. I never outright resented my friends for being better off than we were, but there were lots of feelings of “Oh, what I wouldn’t give…” or “Oh, what I couldn’t do with those resources/opportunities/etc.” and it was difficult on the hardest days to be really happy and excited for other people. Or the other person’s happiness winds up reminding you of something you’ve lost, so it triggers feelings of regret.

Conversely, when things are going really well in our lives, most of us dislike being reminded that other people aren’t doing well, especially when it’s people we care about. Our joy and happiness seems tarnished by the knowledge, somehow, because we all have that initial urge to make something about ourselves rather than about the other person. We don’t want to feel pain in a moment of triumph. But it’s important to be compassionate and empathetic to those around us. And I experienced this when I was pregnant with my first child. Several people close to me suffered great personal tragedy. Others less immediate loss, but still were going through really rough times. And it was during this time that I really learned how to experience the grief and pain of those I care for without allowing those feelings to diminish my personal joy.

Recently, a coworker of mine whom I was getting friend-ish with and felt a connection to has backed off from where we’ve been, almost immediately once I announced that I was buying a house and was pregnant. I know that they are in the midst of personal struggles and that my domestic happiness is a reminder of what they no longer have, but I feel a sense of loss at a potential amazing friendship. See, I like and love a lot of people, but the number of people I count as being close to me is a very small number. It’s a defensive mechanism in many ways to keep that distance from others. So to have someone that seemed to have the potential of being a part of that select few back away makes me a bit sad. But because I have already thought through all of this in my head, I’m able to just give the coworker the space that is needed. If we become friends in the future, great, and if not, hopefully whatever connection existed served the purpose it was suppose to serve. At the end of the day, it’s not wholly, or even mostly, about me. And being able to realize that has been a great boon in navigating this crazy life.

This, I think, is the real point of “practicing mindfulness” and “living in the moment”. You can repeat New Ageisms until you’re blue in the face, but until you switch from a passive to an active mode of living those phrases, until you learn to navigate not only your highs and lows in life but the highs and lows of the people around you, then the words are mostly meaningless.

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