Why pain is a part of real happiness

I was working out at the gym this morning, lost in my own head, when I failed to notice an old man grinning at me, shaky on his twin canes, trying to get my attention.

“Ey, mon, he sayin’ hello to ya,” his Caribbean assistant said as if I’d been rude. It was only then I turned to look at the old man’s dim eyes behind his dirty glasses, searching mine, trying to connect.

“Hello! Sorry, I didn’t see you.” But by the time I spoke, he’d turned away, caught up in his own mortal struggle, moving from the leg curl to the abs machine.

I felt heartbroken. Actually, heart-stabbed by a searing remorse. Did I make him feel invisible? The pain was unusually intense and raw, as if I was inside his body. I knew exactly what he was feeling because I was already feeling it myself.

Ripped raw. That’s how life feels these days.  That’s how it feels underneath the good news. The happy marriage, the stable health, a career still kicking after all these years.  In spite of all that, I was broken inside, hopeless, empty, and waiting to die. Just like the guy in the saggy sweatpants.

When people ask me how I am nowadays, I say, “I’m everything.” 

Incredibly grateful, appalled, full of grief, determined, confused, and uplifted. Overwhelmed by outrage, dread, and disgust: over human stupidity, most of all, the glaring offenses to sanity, justice, kindness. Suffering caused by stupidity is what scours out the core of me.  The world is completely unbearable. And the alternative is not appealing. 

I’m happier than I’ve ever been, and petrified, like Georgia O’Keefe. “I’ve been absolutely terrified every moment of my life – and I’ve never let it keep me from doing a single thing I wanted to do,” said the painter.  Experience is always hyphenate. Cheerful-despondent, longing-ornery, desirous-shutdown, willing-unwilling. Happy sad. We live in the cracks between opposite feelings. Or should I say, the trenches.

 I ricochet between bliss and heartbreak. Does everyone feels this way, I wonder, torn between the extremities of each ordinary day? How is it possible to move through the world with open eyes and not be devastated by what you see? Amazed and overjoyed, too.  How can you not be torn in two by the spectacle of so many humans trying so hard, hurting so much, and still getting on with their lives, sometimes even dancing and laughing? It’s enough to rip your heart out, seeing the courage and fear in people’s eyes. There are times when I cry when I look at strangers, seeing what’s going on inside them. The tumult of it. And the hope.

When I look at the world through the eyes of heartbreak, so much of the circus – the whole hypocritical mess of things – collapses in the presence of truth.

We’re animals staring at the sky, every single one of us together. No one has a clue why we’re here. We have no earthly idea who we are, where we’re going, or what we’ll find when we get there. We live in confusion and pain, all of us, fearing the loss of all we love.

Remembering that, the circus dies down. I can see the world through softer eyes. I can forgive myself and every single other human being unconditionally and forever. There’s nothing to hold on to – no ax to grind. Nothing but wonder at being alive and able to marvel still at the world.

When the old man caught my eye in the lobby, he smiled. “Some days are better than others,” he said. Then he aimed his canes at the front door and walked with extreme care, very slowly, into the gorgeous October morning.

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