Years ago I learned Glennon Doyle’s principle of holding both – the pain and the joy – all at the same time, in everything we do. It has helped me heal, helped me feel less alone and alienated, and helped me connect with countless others who are in the midst of the highest highs right next to their lowest lows. The pain of loss is always holding hands with the joys we gain. Goodbyes with new beginnings, hurt with growth. But recently I’ve started to question if there are sometimes when holding both can be dangerous.
Can we hold both about a person? Can one person be both the holder of our greatest joy and creator of our greatest pain? I can answer quite simply that yes, one person can be both of those things. But then I wonder, should a person hold that space in our lives?
My sister may be the very first example I ever encountered exhibiting this principle. Four years my senior, I’ve never known this world without her in it. Until November 1st, 2016, the day after she took her own life. At 36, she had been holding both inside herself since she was a little girl. As passionate and intellectual as she was, she was an addict suffering from Borderline Personality Disorder. She held both in a way that I will never understand, and that at times I don’t think she was able to understand very well either. And she held both in my life, too.
For years she was my highest highs, my biggest laughs, my greatest joy. She was the breath of fresh air, the rush of excitement, the very best part of being alive. But as we grew up, I was faced with my lowest lows right next to those highs. She’d take her intellect and make her words into daggers, shredding my values and my character. She’d feel her passion and tear me down for feeling differently. She knew just the thing to say to send the tears streaming down my face, to take away my ability to respond. She knew what would hurt me, so she did.
I struggled to understand if having her, holding both this joy and pain, was necessary. If this was something I had to endure, or if there was room for me to walk away. We were family, we had memories that no one else shared, we knew parts of each other no one else knew. I would be losing parts of myself by losing her. But what if my holding both was meant to be the pain of letting go of her while holding on to the joy we were once able to share? What if having her hold that space in my life wasn’t ok for me anymore, what if I didn’t want to be subject to that kind of pain again and again, just so that I could feel that joy with her still? What if I could take the joy with me and walk away from the pain…
Six years ago, that’s exactly what I did. I told myself it wasn’t ok for me to let her hold that space in my life anymore. That as good as the good was, the bad was so much worse. That while I might love our shared laughter, I didn’t want to miss the signal and suddenly be faced with her rage. I wanted to protect myself, for myself. I wanted to be in control of my own joy and my own pain.
That’s a funny thing to say, even as I write it, I wonder if it’s an impossibility – to be in control of our own joy and pain. Certainly, we can’t control when either rise up, I suppose we can only control how we respond to those feelings once they are present. But maybe we do have some say on who is responsible for causing us pain and joy because maybe we shouldn’t allow people to hold the space for both.
I’m starting to believe that just because we have someone who gives us our highest highs, doesn’t mean we have to accept the lowest lows from them. I don’t think that is the equation of love. We work tirelessly on our relationships (because we know that real love takes work), but that work should not inherently equal pain. At some point trying and trying again turns into expecting a different outcome from the same approach, putting a square peg into a round hole, forcing a puzzle piece that doesn’t fit…doesn’t it?
Or, if we stop trying, are we giving up?
I’ve never been able to decide, I still don’t think I can.
With my sister physically gone from this world, I can’t help but wonder, as so many do who have lost a loved one if not letting her hold both in my life meant I was giving up on her. I will never know that now, and it weighs heavy on my heart, affecting the way I approach all of my current and future relationships.
I have always said that when having someone breaks down the very best parts of who we are, that person is not a healthy force in our lives. Yet, the person who challenges us, makes us stop and question even our deepest beliefs can also be a welcomed source of growth and learning. And so maybe that’s why I hold on until I literally just can’t anymore.
It’s not a selfless act in any way, and perhaps these relationships are equally parasitic in some respect – we may take as much as we can from each other, trying, again and again, to see if we can survive as one, until we are both devoid of value, empty, and ultimately alone. And maybe it’s just because we are afraid to walk away until we’ve learned all we can from each other, or maybe it’s because we’re too scared to lose the highest highs.
All I know is that at some point, holding on so tightly to the person that holds both feels like holding on to a trapeze when there’s no net below. We are desperate to make it to safety, barely able to enjoy the flight, and yet hoping we never have to touch the ground.