On Letting Go

‘Better to have loved and lost / than to have never loved at all’ wrote Tennyson in his work In Memoriam, discerning the negative qualities of something do not necessarily discount or negate its positive ones. And so it is with a lover now gone. The pain one feels now should not justify deleting the experience from existence in a ‘sunshine of the spotless mind’.

Yet, while we may agree intellectually with Tennyson’s sentiment, when we are sitting across from an empty chair or walking alone along a pier seeing couples holding hands, it becomes immensely difficult, ridiculous even, to agree emotionally. We can agree with our head it seems, but not with our heart.

Once again, intellectually, we may acknowledge loss cannot be separated from love. We know that even without a break up and the blessing to spend our entire lives together, one day one of us will still be looking over the casket of the other. Yet the intellect provides no solace to the soul. We know that eventually one was destined to leave, but that does not make it hurt any less. The realm of the intellect is neat and formal, but the realm of the heart abides by no such standards of cleanliness, it is a messy and often chaotic place. What may be clear to the intellect is not immediately clear to the heart.

The antagonism between holding on and letting go leaves us feeling caught between an emotional Scylla and Charybdis. On the one hand, if we hold on, this person can remain as a precious memory in our heart. Love will continue, even if the agony of their loss will haunt each precious memory and poison it. On the other hand, we could let them go, but then we would come face to face with ourselves as the petty, ignorant, broken individuals we are; if we were better after all, would they not have stayed? Between the rocky shoals of holding on and the whirlpool of letting go; navigating the precarious passage seems impossible.

When we hold on, we fail to move into the present. We tell ourselves that while our lover is now gone, that they have been mistaken and will soon realise their error and return. With the music of love absent, we fill the empty space with the misguided symphony of hope; the opiate of a broken heart. ‘When we eventually acknowledge the asymmetry of feeling’ writes Maria Popova in her masterwork Figuring, ‘we first labour to persuade ourselves that the intensity of our own love is reward enough’[1]. Soon, when the illusion of return dissolves, we grasp onto another illusion (no less illusory but feeling so as we reflect on our previous attitude) that while our love is no longer reciprocated, the strength of our own love is so strong that it will sustain us. We tell ourselves that we will continue to adore them from a distance, finding solace and fulfilment in our unrequited love. But this illusion too fades and we realise this love is empty and we must now deal with the loss that was too raw to deal with originally.

Letting go carries its own metaphysical burden. Thinking about a life without your partner seems like the highest betrayal. We think that if we let go, it is proof that the love itself was never genuine in the first place. We want to believe that the one whom we loved was truly special and unique, and therefore, if we let go of them and transform them into a memory, they become like every other person we have met, flattened in the one-dimensional space of recollection. If we accept we can let go, then this person becomes just like any other person we could have met, and our love becomes diminished in our own eyes, a product of chance rather than destiny.

Perhaps we are destined to love, but not destined for the one whom we love. If this is true, to love fully, to love deeply, and to continue loving, we must be willing to accept loss as an essential feature in any relationship. This does not mean that we should count on, expect or hope for the moment our beloved leaves us, but rather, it means we should recognise the fleeting and ephemeral nature of love. ‘A consideration of death’ wrote Alan Watts, ‘can lead to a greater appreciation of life’. Considering that every love must inevitably come to an end may prompt us to act differently. We may realise because our time together is conditional, not guaranteed; momentary, not everlasting, that we should savour each moment we have together, which may lead to a richer, more fulfilling relationship. Accepting that once things have run their course that this should not be a cause for despair, but a cause for celebration for time spent well together, of a life lived fully. In turn, we will be prepared for the inevitable loss and rather than running away from it, be slightly better equipped to deal with it.

[1] Popova, M.P., 2020. Figuring. Great Britain: Canongate Books. 348

Listening To a Friend

Your friend has just been dumped by their girlfriend. Limp, depressed, and possessed with a weltschmertz threatening to degenerate into total apathy to life, they begin telling you about their suffering, about how they miss those texts ‘good morning’ each day, and how – as is common when we have nothing left but memories to provide solace – those idiosyncrasies that once annoyed him, now bring a smile to his face. Your friend continues that it is hard to find anything worth smiling about now, with every day seeming bleaker than the last.

Isolation, John Cunnane, 2020.

‘There is so much to be happy about’ you reply to your friend, as you list all the joyous things they have (including having a friend so adept at listening). But this does not seem to cheer them up.

Are you at all surprised? All you have done is affirm the distance between yourself and your friend, between one who is content (or, at least, not manically depressed) and one who is not. If anything, your friend’s depression has been compounded with shame, because not only are they depressed, but they are now depressed because they seemingly do not even have the right to be depressed.

None of this is said, but it is certainly felt in your friend’s heart. Unmoved, you tell them to pick up yoga, focus on the things that are great in life, or go out and meet someone else, after all, there are so many fish in the sea. Once more, this does not change your friend’s countenance one iota.

Are you at all surprised? There is danger in telling people what they ought to do. When people are depressed, they are not looking for a teacher, they are looking for a friend; looking for a (mental or physical) embrace, not a guidebook. We often fall into this – well-meaning, yet misguided – trap of providing advice when people open up to us. What those in need require, even if it may not seem so to us, are not instructions on how to live their life, but patience, kindness, and the subtle understanding that indeed, life does suck at the moment, but it won’t forever. To be there for someone requires us to stop thinking about what we think should happen, but to focus, here and now, on what is actually happening. It means responding to them, not as a person who needs help, but as one who needs comfort. At its most fundamental, it means listening, really listening; that is, not listening merely to give a response, but to hearing out the inner anguish and unheard screams of a hurting soul.

If your friend wanted advice, they would have asked for it. Give them the credit – as you would expect others to give to you – that they will reach out for help if they need it. Sometimes we need help, but sometimes we just need someone to listen to us, to feel with us, and to understand us. It requires a particular kind of silence; the silence of a mind that is receptive to the other, without simply waiting to speak.

The redemptive power of friendship is more powerful than any advice. Rather than telling your friend what they ought to do, you could instead, place your hand on theirs, stare into their eyes, and tell them, with words that carry the weight of one who feels what they say in their very bones, that ‘I hear you’. Reminiscent of one of the 4 mantras of Thich Nhat Hanh,

The most precious gift you can give to the one you love is your true presence. So the first mantra is very simple: “Dear one, I am here for you”.

Helping Hands, Sarah Hancock, 2020.

Cultivating presence and really being there for someone is an incredibly difficult task, yet one of the most enriching and gratifying aspects of friendship. The most powerful remedy to depression is not advice on how to be happy, but on knowing that despite everything that has happened, you are not alone. If you can show your friend that you are there for them, your presence will help them heal more than any advice ever could.

The Power of Imagination

In his work Man’s Search For Meaning, Viktor Frankl remarks that while being able to imagine a future beyond the camps did not stop death, it did create the opportunity for life. He observed that with sufficient imagination, we can tolerate the intolerable. He was, after all, a survivor of the holocaust.

While our problems may not be quite as severe, they are no less deserving of attention and empathy; and likewise, how we learn to deal with them will benefit from a proper dose of imagination.

A Boys Dream, by Dana Mallon, 2011.

When a loved one passes away, we cannot imagine getting through the day without their cute reminders that they are there for us; when a partner leaves, we cannot imagine waking up in the morning to an empty pillow beside us; when we receive a debilitating injury, we cannot imagine getting through the day with a constant jarring pain every time we take a step. We cannot imagine a world different to the one we currently inhabit. We stop. Walls rise around us. We become unable to summon an alternative world where things could be different than they are now.

In one of the many self-fulfilling prophecies of the mind, whatever we think will be, becomes. We turn life into the experience we already believe it to be. If we believe our loneliness will always be painful and our injury always debilitating, than this will be the case. Of course, this is not an argument of magical thinking, but rather a recognition that, to a significant extent, the world is a reflection of how we already perceive it to be. In this sense, we live very much in our own minds.

Despair, by Edvard Munch, 1892.

It is surely difficult, especially when we are oppressed by intense suffering, to conjure the necessary strength to see things differently. As is often the case, we fall into the trap of nostalgia. We may try and reconnect with an old flame after our partner has left us, or we may spend our time rummaging through old photographs after the death of a loved one, or we may run back to an old job when our current one does not work out. Of course, these may sometimes be necessary short term mechanisms to help us get through things. But we can easily trap ourselves in loops of returning to the past, rather than creating entirely new scenarios for ourselves in the future. Frankl cautions, we must reject the narrow prison of the past and embrace the spacious freedom of the present. Unable to imagine a fundamentally different future, all we can see is images of our past.

‘There is a danger’, writes Frankl, ‘in robbing the present of its reality’. By ‘closing our eyes and living in the past’, we seal our fate and doom ourselves to live in a reality that no longer exists. Despair offers us all a ‘challenge’, and ultimately, it is up to us whether we decide to make a ‘victory’ out of opportunity, or ‘vegetate’ in defeat. What we require, is sufficient imagination to craft a future out of the broken pieces before us.

In his work The Body Keeps the Score, the psychoanalyst Bessel Van Der Kolk writes,

Imagination gives us the opportunity to envision new possibilities – it is an essential launchpad for making our hopes comes true. It fires our creativity, relieves our boredom, alleviates our pain, enhances our pleasures, and enriches our most intimate relationships. When people are compulsively and constantly pulled back into the past, to the last time they felt intense involvement and deep emotions, they suffer from a failure of imagination, a loss of mental flexibility.

Without imagination there is no hope, no chance to envision a better future, no place to go, no goal to reach.

Imagination is a metaphysical springboard, lifting us off from the past towards a future not yet defined or clearly seen, but certainly just as (if not more) interesting and exciting as what came before.

Of course, telling ourselves and others to let go of the past and keep on moving is easier said than done. Sometimes, when things get particularly bad, the dark chasm we find ourselves in seems immeasurably deep and impenetrable to the light of benevolent thoughts. We simply cannot imagine that after our loved one is struck down with disease that life will ever be joyous or happy; or that after the person we thought we would spend life with leaves us, that we could ever love again. These are our darkest moments and they call for a commensurate amount of inner strength and determination. With imagination, despair can be transformed into courage, and defeat into acceptance, appreciating that while your life may never be what it was, you have the power to determine what it will become.

On Suffering

Nietzsche criticized those who wished to abolish suffering. As an outcast who lived by himself in a small cabin and died alone, he likely knew suffering well. But this does not mean he was necessarily unhappy with his life. Suffering, according to Nietzsche, was what made life beautiful and, ironically, enjoyable. In a form of philosophical judo reminiscent of Alan Watts’ ‘law of reversed effect’, it is through embracing rather than refusing suffering, that we can come to appreciate, and perhaps more precisely locate, those things in life which truly bring us joy.

As Watts was keen to remind his listeners, once cannot have black without white, foreground without background, self without other, and, as Nietzsche would add, joy without suffering. Suffering is not simply a feature of life that bring joy into focus, it is its counterpart. They are inextricably bound to each other, existing as two sides of the same process. To press the point just a little further, waves must have crests and troughs, ranges must have hills and valleys, and experience must have joy and suffering. It was from this perspective that Nietzsche wrote, not with misanthropy, but with love,

To those human beings who are of any concern to me I wish suffering, desolation, sickness, ill-treatment, indignities—I wish that they should not remain unfamiliar with profound self-contempt, the torture of self-mistrust, the wretchedness of the vanquished…

Because it is these very experiences that bring the joys of life into focus. Nietzsche thought of life as climbing a mountain and that as one climbs higher, the muscles tighten, the air thins, the lungs wheeze, the body strains and struggles under physical exertion; but the view from the top is more exceptional, extraordinary, and captivating then if we had remained at the summit.

Unfortunately, it is part of our cultural conditioning to deny this suffering, and in turn, the greater joys it brings. We inwardly cry ‘make it stop’ and use whatever means at our disposal to mute our internal screams. We may turn to drinking, drug taking, distraction, or numbing, but as we all know, this only adds a second arrow of suffering to the first.

Echoing Nietzsche, Simone Weil remarked that rather than denying our suffering and therefore compounding it, we must embrace and acknowledge it. As with suffering,

A similar use can be made of hunger, fatigue, feat and everything that imperatively constrains the sentient part of the soul to cry: I can bear no more! Make it stop! There should be something in us that answers: I consent that it should continue up to the moment of death, or that it should not even finish then, but continue for ever…to make of us in this way of the sufferings that chance inflicts upon us is better than inflicting intellectual discipline upon oneself.

It is through suffering that we gain insight into joy. If you wish to befriend one, you must befriend the other. Nietzsche noted, ‘whoever wanted to learn to jubilate up to the heavens, would also have to be prepared for depression unto death’. Of course, nobody wants to go to hell, but it appears that, as Watts remarked, if we are to have intense pleasures, we must also have intense pains. The other option, it appears, would be to minimise displeasure as much as possible, but in the process, minimise all pleasures too. I won’t tell you how to live, it is ultimately up to you to decide if the view from the peak is worth the climb from the summit. But life includes suffering as well as joy, and embracing this fact, rather than running away from it, will lead to a more richly textured and fully human life.

Suffering is valuable for the insight it can (but by no means neccasarily) provide. For all our powers of abtract reasoning and investigation, we are similarly adept at, if not consciously repressing, than ignoring the parts of our selves that require attention. In a stream that runs smoothly, the sediment slowly falls and remains seated on the bed. But suffering functions like a sudden rush, a storm, that dislodges the sediment and throws it back into the stream and while murkying the waters, reveals what was always there, but was too still and submerged to be noticed. Suffering can, for perhaps the first time in a long time, shake us from our stupor and bring to our attention what was previously unnoticed. While not guaranteed, it provides an opportunity, if properly handled, for growth. It does not mean we will no longer suffer, but it does mean we can grow. And while it will still hurt, some solace and comfort can be found in the fact that suffering is not inherently evil, and can provide a springboard for us to transform into more authentic versions of ourselves.

On Language

Imagine the following situation,

Your girlfriend has just left you. Bewildered and listless, you sit down at the table outside where you shared so many happy memories together. You think of how she used to throw her head back and laugh when you made a particularly witty remark. You remember how she would meticulously roll out the cinders at the end of her cigarettes on the ashtray. You remember how she would tilt her head to the side and smile self-consciously, almost embarrassed that she found someone who felt that way about her. But, now she is gone. You sit alone, staring across the table at an empty chair. You have this inexplicable feeling…

And it is precisely here where language is so important because it helps describe what would otherwise be indecipherable, delineate what was previously opaque. Although there is no word for it in English, you may be experiencing what the German’s call worhanden, where something’s presence is magnified by its absence. It may bring you to a second realisation; that you did not know what you had until it was gone. This feeling is zuhanden, another fantastic German word which means ‘hiding in the light’.

Language can help us realise – that is, to make real – the subterranean and previously indescribable feelings of our heart’s. Indeed, language can clarify and obscure. But, when used mindfully and with care, language can help deepen and sharpen our understanding of our own feelings.

However, there is a sense, in which this is not true, or at least, not relevant. While language may help us identify and make sense of our feelings, it has, like any tool, its own shortcomings. If I learn your name, I still don’t know anything about you. Or, at least, nothing that matters. If I really wanted to know you, understand you, and have communion with you, naming you would not help me. What I would need to do is listen, feel, and identify with you. The same holds true of feelings.

If you say what you are feeling is worhanden, or that you are feeling angry, or sad, or listless, you do not really know anything more than you did previously. You have, however, put a conceptual and fragmented box around your feelings. To truly understand the feeling, you have to act how you would if you wanted to understand a person: you have to listen. Rather than telling yourself what the feeling is, allow the feeling to tell you what it means. Then, you may reach an understanding that cannot come through language. You may not be able to put that understanding into words, but perhaps that is the point.

The Importance of a Mental Breakdown

One thing we are very good at is ‘putting things off’. It has been a while, but we will call our parents tomorrow; we are just too tired to do it today. We will start that diet regime, but after just one more hamburger. We will become more understanding and empathetic, but later, because what this person just said was utterly stupid and they need to be corrected. We will deal with the agony of a partner leaving us, but it must be later because there is work to be done, meals to be prepared, and friends to be seen. Indeed, we are excellent at putting things to the side today, in the vain (and misleading) hope that they will be dealt with tomorrow. Of course, tomorrow soon becomes today, and the problem is put off once more into the infinitely receding horizon of the future. We put things off all the time and it allows us to continue in our day to day lives. It is a curse we believe is a blessing.

Because, eventually, something happens. The parts of ourselves that had been squeezed down, pushed aside, ignored, repressed or denied; suddenly burst forth with such unrighteous anger that we do not fully understand what has happened. One moment we were fine and then all of a sudden: snap, like an elastic band that was stretched beyond a critical point. What has inconceivably (and inconveniently) happened is that we have broken down. The conflicts/struggles/unresolved issues of our internal worlds have been left unattended to for so long that they find expression in the only way they know how. The breakdown is the mind’s attempt to force us to finally look at these problems and attend to them. It is, ironically, a process of becoming better by first making oneself incredibly sick. It is a blessing we believe is a curse.

But, the breakdown is an opportunity (perhaps for the first time in a long time) for us to look at ourselves as we are. The uncomfortable memories we evaded, the wishes and dreams we neglected, and the emotions we denied come forth, and while it is painful and confronting, it allows us to come to terms with a whole other dimension of ourselves and begin a process of reconciliation and healing. A breakdown, therefore, is not only a process of destruction, but a momentous opportunity for growth.

A breakdown is frightening. After being quiet for so long, the thoughts, feelings, memories, and unarticulated desires burst forth with mute rage, attempting to be heard in the only way left at their disposal: shutting the whole system down. The screams of the unheard are filled with pain, sorrow and misery. It is confronting, especially in a culture that extolls us at every waking moment to be happy. But the breakdown tells us that happiness is no longer an option. Thankfully, by finally facing these previously ignored parts of ourselves’, we may find a type of reconciled peace that was previously withheld.

When we break down, as we all will at one or many points in our lives, we would be wise to remember that we have not fallen ill. We were already ill, we just didn’t know it. We are finally in the process of getting better. If managed correctly – with an understanding and forgiving approach – the crisis will not become a disintegration of who we were, but rather, a removal of a noxious mindset, and a chance to rebuild our lives’ in a more authentic way.

On Vulnerability

With tender and invisible threads, we are inextricably bound to one another. Although we choose to live mainly through shadowy abstractions of the ‘I’ and ‘me’, they only momentarily disguise the indisputable truth: we cannot live without each other.

Of course, there are those who try. They retreat into the mountains, or run away on overseas vacations, desperately seeking to separate themselves from others in the vain hope of avoiding the pain of loss, the agony of betrayal, or the scarring burns of deceit. But, when one retreats from life like this, encasing themselves behind the brick and mortar of fear and insecurity, they not only distance themselves from the pain of separation, they likewise negate the joy of communion. For one simply cannot have one without the other.

‘The more we are able to love another person and to enjoy his company, the greater must be our grief at his death, or in separation’ wrote Alan Watts, in his splendid meditation on the wisdom of insecurity. ‘To the degree that life is found good, death must be proportionately evil’. As Simone De Beauvoir understood well, life places an exceptional burden on us. With playful irony, we have no choice but to be free; free to think, free to feel, and free to believe. But, for some, the freedom to feel becomes too painful, and they try to shut it down. Watts continues,

Something of this kind is often attempted. There is the woman who, having suffered some deep emotional injury in love or marriage, vows never to let another man play on her feelings, assuming the role of the hard and bitter spinster. Almost more common is the sensitive boy who learns in school to encrust himself for life in the shell of the “tough-guy” attitude. As an adult he plays, in self-defence, the role of the Philistine, to whom all intellectual and emotional culture is womanish and “sissy.” Carried to its final extreme, the logical end of this type of reaction to life is suicide. The hard-bitten kind of person is always, as it were, a partial suicide; some of himself is already dead.

Pain, suffering, anxiety, grief and sorrow are integral aspects of the human condition. If we wall them off or cut them out, we are not protecting ourselves from anything, what we are doing is denying our own humanity. It is more difficult to stay with your grief than run from it, but it is also more rewarding.

Opening ourselves to love but also hate, to being embraced but also rejected, is the most difficult yet rewarding part of life. It is what makes a fully human existence possible. It is a skill that can be mindfully practised if we can remind ourselves that it all starts with allowing ourselves to become vulnerable.

When we allow ourselves to become vulnerable, we gain an incredible vitality and zest for life. Because so much of our energy goes into protecting and securing ourselves from grief, sorrow, anxiety and so forth, once we stop this, it can finally be directed to more sublime and transcendent ends. The materials used to construct cold walls of exclusion can be used to build beautiful bridges between us.

If you do not have sight you can never be blinded, but you will never bear witness to the shifting mosaic of a kaleidoscope, or the tranquil beauty of a bee buzzing humbly on a blooming rose. If you do not have ears, you will never have to listen to cruel rumours and gossip, but you will never enjoy the melodic symphonies of Mendelssohn or Brahms. If you do not have an open heart, you will never be hurt again, but you will never be able to experience the bliss of being loved unconditionally and accepted for who you are.

Being vulnerable means exposing yourself to pain, just as much as to pleasure. There is no guarantee that they will come in equal proportions, in commensurate quantities, or even that what is pleasure today will not turn into pain tomorrow. But, being vulnerable affords us the opportunity to truly live and commune with ourselves, with others, and with the universe.

We are so used to thinking about vulnerability in terms of the terrible things that come as a result of it. If we open ourselves up, we allow others to hurt us, trample on our feelings, and push us down. Of course nobody wants this. But, in allowing ourselves to be vulnerable, we open the path for real connection and companionship, and the chance of a really loving and humane relationship. Vulnerability opens ourselves up to the other aspects of our nature we usually keep hidden. It leads us to a fuller and richer reality. What’s more, it can become the bedrock for a new relationship, where we can connect with others on a deeper and more profound level than we have before. We will be able to share our deepest fears, darkest thoughts, and loftiest aspirations, and in doing so, achieve a deeper and more fulfilling emotional connection than we have hitherto had.

On Charity

We often think of charity in the material sense, such as giving money. But this is only its most narrow interpretation. Considered more widely, to be charitable is to offer someone something they may not be able to get themselves, or may not entirely deserve, but because they are human, are worthy of it. There is something far more valuable than money that we are able to give selflessly and without conditions: ourselves.

We can be charitable with our time, by giving our partner the painful yet undoubtedly important time to themselves in order to gather their thoughts or calm their inner storms. We can be charitable with our love, recognising that to love is to love freely and unconditionally, accompanied by the sublime understanding that to give love is to receive it. We can be generous with our patience, acknowledging that we operate at a pace according to our internal clocks and that we cannot (no matter how much we might wish otherwise) demand others to comply with our tempo. And these can be summed up within a grander meta-category: for us to be charitable in our understanding of others. This charity is more precious than diamonds and gold, and more elusive than the horizon or one’s own shadow, yet, it is absolutely fundamental in any relationship.

The charity of understanding is rooted in the realisation that we are often petty, ill-tempered, and ignorant. This seeming misanthropism is bound to the recognition that we can also be kind, generous and empathetic, and that in fact; this is exactly what the call for charity entails.

Perhaps you are over bearing and your partner is under bearing, you may need constant affection and they may need little, and you may need to be reminded that you are loved whereas they are amply confident in themselves. A charitable understanding would involve recognising that we enter into relationships from different positions, and that our current position matters just as much as where we have come from and the trajectory we have taken.

While it is easy to rebuke others when they speak clumsily or admonish them when their actions do not match their loftier aspirations, we would be wise to remind ourselves how deeply grateful we are when people extend us understanding when our words fail us, or we fail to act righteously.

When a person in your life lashes out in blind fury, criticises without seeing their own hypocrisy, or collapses into tears over something as innocuous as an advertisement, the charitable will look on not knowing any of the details, but imagining the events that has led this person before them to act in such a manner. Rather than assuming the worst, the charitable will imagine the personal sorrow that lies beneath the tears, or the unresolved childhood anguish that shifts imperceptibly below their criticisms like tectonic plates. They will find the vulnerability behind the pomposity, the pain behind the venom, the defeat behind the pride. They will remember that the person before them was once a child, as pristine and clean as any one of us, and that it was the circumstances in life that brought them to where they are.

To be charitable is to cling steadfastly to the realisation that we are all human and that beneath it all, there is someone wanting to be heard, they just might not be able to put their thoughts into the correct words. All that is required of us is a patient and calm mind which refuses to judge, and can see the innocent child beneath the jaded adult. We must remind ourselves that we are always on the verge of needing someone to come to our imaginative aid. We too have spoken rudely, accused incorrectly, or reasoned poorly, but it was the charitable understanding of others that gave us the freedom to say what we did, to reflect, and to become better versions of ourselves. We must be charitable in withholding our scorn, condemnation and ridicule of others in the hope that they will accord us the same in our forthcoming hour of shame.

It’s Okay To Not Be Okay

When it comes to our relationships with ourselves, one of our most hazardous and insidious beliefs is that we must always be happy. A product of a culture that extols us at every waking moment to enjoy and sap as much pleasure from life as possible, we are reminded everywhere that happiness is the supreme goal in life. Disinterest in seeking out ever new and unique forms of happiness is seen as a sickness. Unhappiness is seen as a deformity, one which must be immediately rectified before anybody notices. Happiness is considered a-priori that normative state, and any deviation from this state is seen as an abnormality, if not a failure.

The dark underside of this belief is how it is offensive to be sad or, even worse, that we might want to be sad, to feel this other aspect of our humanity so often relegated to the shadowy margins of our psyche.

Unlike happiness, our culture meets sadness with a toxic mixture of repulsion and refusal. We want to make the sadness go away and lift the heart out of the pit of despair.

We have all been victims and likely (well-intentioned) perpetrators of denying sadness. We tell our bereaved friends that it is going to be okay, that things will get better soon, perhaps things are bad now, but they will not remain so forever, or that being sad gets us nowhere so we might as well be pragmatic and toss sadness aside. We engage in all forms of mental and emotional gymnastics to make the sadness disappear.

One of the unintended consequences of this behaviour is to widen the abyss between ourselves and our saddened counterpart. They are painfully aware of their own condition. The daughter of a dying mother knows the feeling of her internal organs twisting from anguish is not “good”, and that crying every day is interfering with her life. Of course she knows this. We might try to coax her out her misery, to dissolve it, and to lead her to a happier place, but for someone incapable of anything except sorrow and grieving, the call to be happy only affirms the distance between themselves and others. The result is not communion, but alienation.

It might seem intuitive to try and remove sadness, but there is another approach, no less intuitive, but perhaps more affectionate and considerate of the other. We could, instead of trying to remove sadness, feel it. We could extend a helping hand and empathetic ear to our friend and hear them out. What they need, even if they may not put it in these words or realise it themselves, is to accept that, in the piercingly simple words of Miranda Devine, ‘it is okay to not be okay’. We can sit with our friend and do something we might not be used to doing: listen.

If we can begin accepting that it is okay to not be okay, rather than rejecting our sadness as something deformed and separate from ourselves, we will be in a position to accept that it is an uncomfortable but necessary part of what it means to be human. It will, in turn, allow us to feel more fully, and lead more intense and emotionally fulfilling lives. What others require of us, is not instructions on how to be happy, or second-hand advice on dealing with pain or sorrow; ultimately, what the other needs is so painfully simple it is easily overlooked: a mind ready to listen, and maybe, two arms ready to hug. The beautiful thing is that this is something all of us can do.

In Honour of Losers

Our society has a tendency to embrace simplistic narratives about the world and our place in it. ‘Good versus evil’ would be one such example. Whether it is a hero battling a villain, or a ‘nation under God’ battling terrorism, there is no such thing as a person (or nation) that is inherently good, and one that is inherently bad. This way of framing life says little about the world, but much about how we think about it.

Another simplification that dominates how we look at ourselves and each other is to categorise some as ‘winners’ and others as ‘losers’, which is really just ‘good’ and ‘bad’ under another label.

The logic at work here is that life can be reduced to a single, all-encompassing matrix where competitors in the race can be ranked from lowest to highest (with medals handed out accordingly).

But, of course, life is not like this. It is a multiplex of many different races, occurring over unique and distinct terrains, with any number of competitors. There are races for fame, prestige, power, status, and rank. And while these receive the most coverage, there are other races occurring all the time. There is a race for who can be the most understanding friend, a race for who can stay calmest under pressure, a race for who can be the most attentive and loving in the face of overwhelmingly harsh and difficult circumstances.

But, the coverage given to certain races – such as the race for power or wealth – creates the impression, soon turning into an opinion, transforming into a belief; that these are the only races worth winning. In the process, we judge ourselves according to athletes we have no hope of contending with. One would not place a child against an Olympic runner and expect them to succeed, nor would one invite a fish and a monkey to a tree climbing race expecting a fair competition. We are not suited to every race in life. Our advantages in one area will become disadvantages in another.

In our more self-critical moments, we begin to feel like fish that have entered a tree climbing competition against monkeys. We feel like we are ill-equipped and unable to compete. Dejected, we blame ourselves. If only our fins were fingers with the necessary climbing dexterity. But, it would be helpful to remember, that if the competition was a swim across the Bass Strait, we would be feeling very different.

We have people in our lives who we think are doing better than ourselves. They may already own houses, go on fabulous holidays every year, be in long term committed relationships, or never suffered the loss of a loved one. We look on at these people and think to ourselves that they are truly winning at life. But on closer inspection, this might not really be the case.

You might not own a house, and have grown up in poverty. But that has given you a appreciation of small pleasure that perhaps your wealthy friend does not have. Another friend may go on fabulous holidays every year, surround themselves with all sorts of pleasures, and spend their days in supreme entertainment. But, they might be less adept at being alone than you, someone who does not have the money to spend every waking moment busy with pleasure. Your friend may never have experienced the severely painful experience of losing a loved one or having a family member struck down with cancer. But you have developed a resilience borne out of suffering that your friend does not have. While another friend is having a party of life, you may have developed depression; but as a result, you may develop an appreciation of life that is profoundly deeper than someone who has never felt the crushing emotional toll of loss as you have. You lost one race, but you certainly won another.

Someone who wins at being a ruthless businessperson will likely lose in the race to be an attentive and understanding partner. Someone who wins the race for prestige and fame will be a loser in the race to be humble and empathetic in the face of someone else’s pain. We simply cannot be winners at everything, which means, likewise, we cannot be losers at everything either.

You are not a loser. It would be far more accurate (and fairer) to note that you may be a loser here, but that only makes you a winner there. If we can begin to realise that life is a multitude of races, and that we will lose some, but win some also, then perhaps we can redeem ourselves in our own eyes and realise that we are not totally losers at all but sometimes flawed and other times excellent humans who are good at some things, and not others.