There’s a particular unwritten code about experiencing emotions, which suggests that we can only experience them one at a time.
When someone dies, you are expected to be inconsolable for a certain period of time. When you get a promotion you are expected to take on an unrelenting aura of optimism and cheer. But it’s a funny trick of fate that sometimes we are pulled with a fierce strength in both directions. We book our long-awaited vacation and then find out that a close friend has cancer. Our dream job calls us for an interview the day we discover our partner’s infidelity. It seems impossible to sort through these emotions; seemingly selfish to relish in the good ones when the bad ones are demanding to be felt.
It is almost as if there is a tiny psychologist in all of our minds, asking us to place our emotions on a scale of miserable to elated. He offers us an easy-to-use spectrum that allows us to judge our wellbeing based on a majority-rules approach. Too many injustices and we tip the scales over toward melancholy. Excess of pleasures and we’re signed up for uninterrupted joy.
Here’s the crafty little trick of it though: Emotions don’t necessarily exist on a continuum. If anything, they exist on a series of continuums. How dismayed are you, on a scale of one to ten? How overjoyed? How angry? Perhaps these forces are working not against but simultaneously alongside one another.
Maybe life is never quite one way or another and neither is our experience of it. Maybe things are allowed to be unbelievably, tragically wrong and also incredibly, unrealistically right at the exact same time.
Paying our respects to what has gone wrong does not contradict our ability to celebrate what has not. We are allowed to feel our sorrows in all their desperate glory and still embrace our triumphs. The existence of a tragedy does not revoke our permission to experience joy. Rather, we have to keep celebrating life in order to pay proper tribute to the horrible parts. If we cease to explore and create, we do the tragedies injustice. We let their horrible impact prevail. We let them strip us of our power to overcome.
We do not need permission to celebrate the little things when all of the big things are going wrong. Postponing a vacation isn’t going to salvage someone else’s health. Butchering an interview isn’t going to save your relationship. Sometimes you have to run headlong into the good things to help give you strength to survive the bad. Cling to them, if you have to, so you can face the other stuff. It is all these tiny triumphs that allow us to fight back when life has us down on the floor. They are the tools that give us power to evolve.
The bad things in life do not cancel out the good things unless we give them explicit permission to. But the good things need your permission to thrive and grow, too.
It’s okay to sometimes smile after the death of a loved one. It’s okay to rejoice at some small victory, even and especially when things are falling apart. It’s okay to rise in the morning and make a cup of coffee and laugh at a stupid Youtube video even if everything else is falling apart. Because darkness doesn’t cure our lives of darkness. But a million tiny candles, lit with confidence and vigor, can eventually bring back the light.