The last two weeks have been, in summary, rough. Both of our cars have needed repair, I had to commute to the city in pouring rain in one of those cars (that was still broken at the time) to spend a workday at a corporate office, the weather is still cold and damp enough to make the furnace kick in regularly, property taxes and student loans are due, my spouse is beyond busy with projects, and the garden weeds already need attention. And then the fridge broke. Modern life – when you don’t live in a metro area full of good Asian take out options – is more challenging without a refrigerator.
Yesterday as I was washing the dishes, reflecting on (agonizing over) all of the things that have happened over the last few weeks (as my husband took apart the freezer in attempt to fix the fridge while our two year old sang/yelled at the top of her lungs as she ran around in the middle of the kitchen), I got to that overwhelmed place that we all get to sometimes when so many things start piling up. And then I started giggling. I’m not really much of a giggler, usually. The giggling wasn’t very far removed from sobbing, I’m sure, but instead of misery, my life situation apparently wanted a more light hearted coping technique. In that moment while my hands were covered in soap bubbles, anyway.
Oliver Burkeman writes in his book titled “The Antidote”:
[Research] points to an alternative approach: a ‘negative path’ to happiness that entails taking a radically different stance towards those things most of us spend our lives trying hard to avoid. This involves learning to enjoy uncertainty, embracing insecurity and becoming familiar with failure. In order to be truly happy, it turns out, we might actually need to be willing to experience more negative emotions – or, at the very least, to stop running quite so hard from them.
While putting some of those dishes away and dodging the small body that was darting around the kitchen over discarded fridge parts, it occurred to me that despite the less than ideal circumstances that have punctuated life lately, I could still breathe through the tints of negativity. I could still stand at the sink and let the uncertainty of life be uncertain, and I could still find joy in the midst of a broken refrigerator. Happiness is still possible in tandem with jobs that want energy that sometimes isn’t there for the taking and with external events that we wouldn’t wish on anyone else.
It turns out that there’s a long tradition in philosophy and spirituality that’s about embracing negativity, about easing up on all of this positive thinking and learning instead to bathe in insecurity, uncertainly and failure, and to find the enormous potential for happiness that’s lurking inside all that.
So, though I look forward to the day when the kitchen is back in working order, the cars are running perfectly, my child prefers reading quietly to yelling, and I am sitting on the sun-bathed back deck instead of in my office, I can find a semblance of contentment in knowing that all circumstances and the feelings that follow are a part of the whole. I can remind myself that it is, after all, simply the beliefs that I hold about my life situation that color the events as good or bad. Without those beliefs, they just are. And when they just exist – without a label – giggling at the sink when life threatens to overwhelm transforms my experience of living in that chaos and invites enough tranquility to overshadow despair. Perhaps when we let our experiences – all of them – be what they are, we are more apt to finally see the joy that is lurking just outside of our sightlines.