Last week, I made a day trip on short notice to fly with a friend to Orlando. As we said our goodbyes, my friend encouraged me to try to catch an earlier flight to avoid arriving home too late in the evening. I briefly considered it, but instead grabbed a late lunch in the Orlando airport, sat down with a journal, and spent some time writing. It had been a stressful few weeks, and I relished the opportunity to put my heart to paper, to allow the pen to help me sort out the mix of emotions that were rolling over me.
Later that evening, during a two-hour layover in Baltimore, my friend called. “Are you home yet?” they asked, hopeful.
“No. I’m in Baltimore.”
“Oh no,” they said. “I was hoping you’d be home by now.”
I reassured them that I chose to keep the later flight in spite of being tired and overwhelmed, and began to tell them many of the joys of my afternoon. The Southwest boarding agent had been the best stand-up comic I’d seen in years, I had a cozy nap on the flight to Baltimore, and had been able to watch the sunset from a big rocking chair in the airport, a sliver of moon hanging crisp in the dimming pink sky over geometric rows of runway lights. Don’t misread me – a full day spent in airports and airplanes was not my ideal, and the day’s travels carried their own stressors. But what stuck out was the joy and meaning – the cathartic passion of writing, the belly-shaking laughter of a boarding agent whose silliness knew no limits, and the stunning visual of lights and sky and reflected nature dancing the sun into its sleep. The day was powerful. The day was vivid.
I’ve been thinking lately about grief – about broken expectations and heartache and fear and anxiety and all that we’re told those things are supposed to mean or be to us. There’s an underlying current of thought in American culture, put there by hundreds of years of bootstrap theology, patriarchal models that privilege mind over body, and positive thinking pop psychology, that tries to convince us that grief cannot coexist with joy, that humor cannot coexist with sadness, or that anger cannot coexist with love. We are told that these things cannot go together, and thus we must choose, pick which one we want to give power in our lives, as if the experience of one emotion, of one way of being, precludes all others… as if allowing ourselves to feel deeply, to be present in our bodies and their experiences, is to betray the cultural expectation to be okay, always okay… as if allowing ourselves to feel regret means we have no gratitude, or questioning shows insufficient faith in a loving God’s goodness.
For the typical person, the pressures weigh heavy even on a good day. For someone who struggles with chronic illness or mental health, the incessant pressure to choose between grief and joy (and let’s be clear, you are meant to choose joy) can itself be debilitating, when your grief also wants to be held, acknowledged, and heard. For someone who lives under any one of a series of marginalizations or oppressions, whether based on race, gender, class, or something else, the pressure to be happy, always happy, as evidence of your spiritual evolution is experientially dissonant, bordering on (if not explicitly) gaslighting.
In The Spiral Dance, Starhawk writes: “Much of reality – the welfare system, war, the social roles ordained for women and men – are created collectively and can only be changed collectively. One of the clearest insights of feminism is that our struggles are not just individual, and our pain is not private pain; it is created by ways in which our culture treats women as a class. Sexism, racism, poverty, and blind accident do shape people’s lives, and they are not created by their victims.” There is no shame in acknowledging that we have not solved our own oppression through the power of our spiritual intensity, even as we use a variety of modalities to heal or to ease our adjustments to life’s unpredictability, and participate in actions to create structural change.
Saba Mahmood has written extensively about the problem of equating agency with resistance, of acknowledging agency only to the extent that the subject pursues a Western model of individualistic freedom. Similarly, there is a problem in equating a “good life” with positivity, of acknowledging someone’s inherent value or success only to the extent that they embody Western ideals of success within a capitalist system and ever-present joy and contentment with the trajectory of their lives.
The reality is that there is often joy in parallel with grief, as bittersweet memories bring us optimistic hope as well as tenderness over things that could have happened, but didn’t. There is often love in our hurt, the friend who holds our hand through the loss of a dream and the ensuing re-visioning of what our lives might become. There is often laughter in our tears, desire in our letting go, and the unexpected pink of sunset clouds lifting a sliver of moon high above dazzling runway lights at the setting of a long, busy, and emotionally full day.
Starhawk also writes: “While we can’t stop the earth from turning, we can choose to experience each revolution so deeply and completely that even the dark becomes luminous.” I’m still unconvinced that every experience is to be savored. Some pains are too great, some wounds too deep, to give thanks for them unconditionally. But even in the processing of those pains, there will be moments of joy, slivers of hope, waves of peace and healing. For each binary our culture shoves us into, demanding we choose and choose wisely, we can stay planted. We are big enough to hold them all – joy and grief, love and loss, pain and elation, and the new beginning that leans gently against the closure of what we thought we knew.
Christy Croft is a writer, teacher, and healer whose interfaith, personal spiritual practice is inspired by nature, informed by science, and grounded in compassion. She is a graduate student whose current liberal studies program has focused on religion and social justice. She has facilitated safe and sacred space for over twenty years, as a suicide hotline counselor, doula, rape crisis companion, support group facilitator, minister, mentor, mother, and friend. Her research interests are ever-evolving and include spirituality, new religious movements, religiosity and popular culture, compassion, trauma, gender, sexuality, and intimacy, and she sometimes blogs at The Sacred Loom.
Categories: Spiritual Journey