My grandpa Fred died earlier this month. I went home to help my mom out a bit after his passing and have had time to reflect on life, meaning, happiness, compassion, regret…I think death tends to make us philosophers, does it not? Especially when we have regrets.
I told my mom that I felt guilty for not coming home sooner to help her, that I felt bad for not being there in the last months of my grandpa’s life when he suffered most, when she suffered most. She responded that she hadn’t come to me when I was in the worst of my pain, either. Something I had never thought of before and definitely not what I was expecting her to say. I never even realized that I may have needed her, to be honest.
I never asked for help, just as she never asked me for help, both of us believing we should be strong enough to handle it without burdening the other. But though neither of us asked the other for help, we each knew the other needed us. But we didn’t go.
My mom said that she didn’t come to me when I was in pain because it was easier not to. It was easier not to. And I didn’t go to help her when she was in pain because it was easier not to.
This doesn’t mean we didn’t love each other, that we didn’t want to help, that we didn’t want to relieve the other’s suffering. It doesn’t even mean that we intentionally didn’t go. But it does mean we have had to come to terms with the fact that we didn’t go because it was easier not to.
Avoiding the uncomfortable
I think we, as a society, have a tendency to try to avoid mental discomfort and emotional states or situations that we perceive as negative or difficult. It’s easier not to deal with them, or so we think. But is it really easier? What are the results of doing so?
Some of the consequences are that we may not be there for people when they need us most because it’s easier not to be. And we don’t ask for help when we need it most because we don’t want to be a burden on others or make others uncomfortable, we want to make it easier on them.
In so doing we miss out on something, we miss out connection, on contributing to other’s lives in a meaningful way, on contributing to our own lives in a meaningful way.
What if, rather than trying to avoid that which is uncomfortable, we faced it? What if we acknowledged our distress, our discomfort, our unease, our sadness rather than trying to bury it beneath a facade of strength and happiness and I’m fine? Would our lives be more enriched by allowing for such experiences? More full? More meaningful?
I think we get caught up in the pursuit of happiness, we get caught up in the carefully curated lives we see on Facebook, we get caught up in the pursuit of a ‘perfect life’. But life ain’t perfect folks, not for any of us. And that’s ok, perhaps if we talk about the imperfections a bit they won’t become so monumental and they’ll become easier to bear, to deal with, to cope with, to move on from.
Perhaps rather than pursuing constant happiness, pursuing perfection, we’d be better off pursuing meaning. Negative emotions and experiences, including pain, including regret, can be a part of a well-lived, loved, and meaningful life. We needn’t suffer for them, we can learn from them, grow from them. We can take action.
Without the mud, you cannot grow the lotus flower ~ Thich Nhat Hanh
There is also plenty of room for happiness, too, though. For joy and laughter, delight and humor, love and well-being. For self-kindness and gratitude and giving. For purpose. And each of those things in turn provide our lives with more meaning, it’s a virtuous cycle.
If in our daily life we can smile, if we can be peaceful and happy, not only we, but everyone will profit from it ~ Thich Nhat Hanh
Perhaps, just perhaps, negative emotions and negative experiences don’t have to be construed as ‘bad’, then. Perhaps they don’t need to be avoided but rather need to be explored. Rather than just ‘feeling bad’, can we be more nuanced in our expression? Are we in despair? Regretful? Sad? Angry? What can we do about it?
Perhaps allowing ourselves to experience negative emotions also allows us to experience life more fully, more precisely, more authentically.
Facing the uncomfortable
We can pursue meaning in our lives even in the midst of adversity, after all. Even when we’re challenged or uncomfortable, when we’re in pain, when we’re exhausted when we’re struggling.
I’m not talking about finding meaning in what happened or is happening, mind you, I don’t believe that everything happens for a reason. I’m talking about pursuing meaning in how we live our lives. Being grateful, being of service. Loving and being loved. Meaningfully connecting with others, with our environment, with ourselves.
I think that connection may be the key that allows us to overcome or cope with the adversity, the challenges, the struggles, the discomforts, and the uncertainties we are faced with, not just as individuals but collectively, as a society. Perhaps it helps us to become more resilient, more adaptable, more flexible.
Perhaps it allows us to do that which is not easy.
When I said to my mom that she needn’t feel guilty about not coming to me when I was in the worst of my pain, she replied ‘oh Jo, I got over that a long time ago’.
That statement resonated with other things she had said during the time that I was home, such as when a friend of hers said he felt bad that he couldn’t attend my grandpa’s funeral service. ‘Ok, feel bad then get over it,’ was my mom’s reply.
Feel bad, then get over it
Both of those phrases are important. Before we can get over it we need to actually do the feeling bad part, even if it’s uncomfortable, even if we’re remorseful, even if we have regrets. Who among us has no regret? I certainly regret not having gone home sooner. I certainly regret other things that I’ve done in my life, too. Who has experienced no sadness? No disappointment?
But we have to get over it, too. We have to be able to live with the regret. Maybe if we can sit with our remorse and our sadness without judgement, if we can accept our actions and our emotions, then we can move on, vowing to be better people for having had the experience.
Perhaps we can only learn from remorse, from sadness, from pain, from regret, if we allow ourselves to experience it and then accept those experiences as a part of who we are. They are part of who we are, after all, even if we don’t like it. And then we have to move on, we needn’t wallow in it, we needn’t go down the rabbit hole. We can become better people for it. More resilient, more appreciative, more loving, more compassionate, more giving, more kind.
I’m not trying to say it’s easy. It’s most certainly not. But maybe we shouldn’t always do what’s easier.
Self-compassion and self-kindness
In order to do this, though, to experience these negative emotions, to face our regrets, to sit with them and accept them in order to move on, we have to be kind to ourselves. We have to have self-compassion or sitting with these things would be unbearable. This isn’t about blame or guilt or about whether we’re good or bad, t’s about acknowledgement and allowing ourselves to feel without judgment and with kindness.
We don’t necessarily need to forgive ourselves, mind you, but we do need to accept that we are not perfect, that we make imperfect decisions that we may regret, and that we can do better the next time we are confronted with a similar situation. We are only human.
Perhaps we just need to be able to sit with, to feel, to experience a gamut of emotions, ‘negative’ or ‘positive’, without judging them to be good or bad. They just are. It just is.
And maybe if we allow ourselves to experience this gamut of emotions with nuance, acknowledgement, nonjudgment, acceptance, and self-compassion, we’ll be able to handle whatever comes our way with a bit more grace, a bit more peace. Perhaps it will allow us to live a bit more fully, a bit more meaningfully.
Perhaps we will start doing that which is easier not to do.
The sunset the night Grandpa Fred died
Until next time…
(psst…one last thing. here are the external links shared throughout the post with titles in case you’re interested)
Are you in Despair? That’s Good by the New York Times
The Differences between Happiness and Meaning in Life: There can be substantial trade-offs between seeking happiness and seeking meaning in life by Scientific American
Sometimes Embracing Emotional Distress is the Best Medicine: Avoiding mental discomfort at any cost can be a self-defeating strategy by Scientific American
Self-Compassion Promotes Personal Improvement From Regret Experiences via Acceptance from the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin