Behind every sun lit tree there is a lurking shadow.
Beyond every summer breeze there lies a winter chill.
No matter where I try to run, the sadness seems to chase me.
It’s a cumulus cloud, a tenacious oppressor,
Always on my tail.
All that is good is tainted by the darkness.
Everything sweet is shadowed by bitter.
All that is living is fleeing from decay.
These shadows they haunt us,
A reminder that everything is ephemeral.
The flowers will fade.
The grass will wither.
Our skin will become dust.
And these shadows too shall pass.
There is a feeling that rises within me every time I feel great joy. A sense of haunting sadness and a chilling panic. A cloud that sweeps across the clear blue sky and leaves goosebumps on my skin.
An awareness that soon the joy will pass. Without notice, the blinding happiness could be taken from me.
So I am quick to extinguish the joy rather than dwell on it. My mind scurries to latch the windows and draw the curtains.
I have this firm belief that it is better to shield myself than feel these overwhelming emotions.
So I smother them. The darkness and the light. The joy and the grief.
Brené Brown talks about this concept as a shield of armor we use to protect ourselves from feeling vulnerable. She calls this sensation, foreboding joy. In those moments of absolute bliss we are exposed, laid bare and defenseless.
When we feel love, connection or a sense of purpose, we are vulnerable because we have something to lose.
So rather than taking our time and sitting in the joy, we trample over it quickly with fear and sadness.
We picture these worst case scenarios. Our partner leaves us, one of our parents passes away, we lose our jobs, our plane goes down.
We prepare ourselves for the worst instead of living our best.
We think it is safer to keep our expectations low so that we won’t have to face the awful pain of disappointment.
I didn’t realise how often I was doing this until I recently read Brené’s book, Daring Greatly. I thought this shield of foreboding joy was just another idiosyncrasy I possess. That for me, everything was just a little bit tainted by sadness.
But as it turns out, I’m not the only one who lives this way. Darting from joy and dwelling on sadness.
It’s just another way that we try to escape that missing-the-last-step-stomach-drop feeling that comes with vulnerability.
None of us are particularly fond of the delicate balancing act we must undertake in order to find connection and meaning in this life. Wearing our hearts on our sleeves, sharing our art with the world, showing up wherever we go.
There is so much at stake. Sometimes the risk feels like too much to ask.
I’d rather stay in bed than face the fear of rejection or open myself up to the judgement and criticism of others.
Unfortunately, as I’ve got older I have come to realise that all the best bits in life require vulnerability.
Those laughing-until-you-can’t-breathe friendships. That flying feeling of sharing something you’ve created with complete strangers. The dizzy dancing rush of saying I love you for the first time. Blushing when someone compliments your cooking. Traveling some place not yet explored and losing your sentiment in translation.
I used to hide from the joy because I wasn’t brave enough to reach that depth of vulnerability.
But now that I recognize this problem I’m striving to have the courage to feel joy.
Whenever I find myself softened by happiness, instead of allowing the sinking feeling of weakness to set in, I’m practicing the art of gratitude.
Giving thanks in that moment for the joy. Taking time to lean out onto the ledge, the uncomfortable, unknown abyss that stretches before me.
Observing the way it makes me want to squirm and choosing to bravely trek onwards regardless.
So I’ll hug my friends extra tightly. I’ll smile even wider at the words I write. I’ll unclench my fists and relax my tense shoulders.
This is what it means to love loudly, to live wholeheartedly.
We share all of ourselves with others. Every last messy, imperfect bit. We know that vulnerability is strength not weakness so we force the shadows back and allow ourselves to feel the light.
I know now that feeling joy is incredibly courageous. It’s so very brave to allow ourselves to dive headfirst into such a powerful and unpredictable emotion.
But in the end both the joy and the sadness teach us what is truly valuable in life.
I consider it a privilege to feel sadness and to fear loss because it means I have something worth fighting for, living for, and loving with all I have.
For me, daring greatly means dropping my shield and welcoming the joy even though it terrifies me. That’s the most challenging, audacious and rewarding work that can be done.