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Joy and Pain and Everything in Between

I'm turning 30 in a month and two days, and I can hardly believe it. It feels like this past decade has flown by. Having spent years working full time, commuting an hour each way to work, taking night classes for two different master's programs (only one of which I completed), and writing countless papers seems to have made it all fly by much faster than I'd anticipated. Plus, the more time that passes by, the more quickly it seems to do so.

During that time, I've also learned countless lessons and grown in ways I never could have imagined. I've made memories with friends and family that I will carry with me for a lifetime. I made sure to make the best of my free time to experience something fun at every opportunity. That being said, I still have days when I don't really know what I'm doing with my life or what it's all for really. And by "it," I mean the stress, the anxiety, the work, the complaints, the dilemmas, the pains, the struggles, etc.

Of course, my logical brain understands that life is all about balance and being able to appreciate the wonderful parts of it because of the contrast with the more difficult parts. You know, like how the rewards are that much sweeter when you've put in the hard work and all that. It also isn't lost on me that I'm very lucky to live where I do and when I do. So then I feel like any sort of complaints about life are ridiculous and unfounded.

In fact, whenever I'm tempted to complain or cry out of a sheer sense of boredom or loneliness or emptiness or a seeming lack of purpose, I think of this quote from the journalist Sydney J. Harris:

"When I hear somebody sigh, 'Life is hard,' I am always tempted to ask, 'Compared to what?'"

He has a point. We don't know anything other than what we know, so how can it be hard? Is it hard compared to the good days we've had? Compared to others' lives? Compared to, say, a state of nothingness that we cannot even begin to fathom?

But then there's this other part of me that remembers sitting in a counseling class in which we were discussing how to work with clients who have experienced trauma we have never endured ourselves. My professor replied to this quandary by suggesting we say something to our clients along the lines of, "I may not know your exact pain, but I do know pain."

I loved that response because we all only know pain by our own subjective definition. Perhaps pain is really all just relative, as are most things in life.

I once heard a friend say that perhaps she shouldn't wallow in her sadness about losing her mother because there are some people in this world who lost their mothers sooner or never had a mother in their lives much at all. It made me sad that she felt like she wasn't "allowed" to mourn the loss of someone so dear to her simply because others may have had it "worse." Granted, perhaps it was her way of coping -- choosing gratitude over sadness.

However, it made me think about the fact that we almost never deny ourselves a feeling of joy or happiness just because others have had it better. So why do we shame ourselves out of our own feelings of sadness or despair or loneliness? Yes, it's good to be grateful and keep a good perspective. But I strongly believe that it's also okay to let all kinds of feelings come and go and feel all of them completely. It allows us to not only be more accepting of ourselves but also indulge in feeling the breadth and depth of the human experience.

I recently came across a picture of an adorable, lop-eared bunny standing up on his hind legs and basking in the sun with his eyes closed, as if he were a sunflower seeking light to grow. I put the picture as the background on my phone and nicknamed him, "Zen Bunny." He's basically become my new role model.

I was telling a new friend about this, and he recounted a story to me about when he was out on a boat with waves crashing all around him. He said he was standing on the deck feeling nervous and scared. Just then, he spotted a bird sitting on top of a wild wave looking as calm as could be. He was riding out the temperamental weather with ease. He said that, ever since, he'll remind himself from time to time, "Be like the ocean duck."

I want to be like the ocean duck, too. I want to ride things out. I want to let all the feelings and experiences I could possibly have in this life flow through me without fighting them. And I want to try my best to take it all in stride. I want to allow myself to feel sad when I'm sad and disappointed when I'm disappointed and overjoyed when I'm overjoyed and grateful when I'm grateful. That isn't to say I will wallow in despair or gloat about what is going well. It's just to say I want to feel free to feel what I feel, and I want everyone else to be able to do the same.

Today has been one of those days when I'm feeling like I'm not quite sure what I want out of life or what role I play in it. It reminded me of this little non-rhyming poem I wrote when I was feeling this same way around age 19.

I was sitting outside my university's cafeteria in between classes, feeling a little hopeless, as if nothing we do in life matters much -- chores, homework, serving customers at a store or restaurant. I had written everything except for the last few lines when I stood up and saw a newspaper lying on the ground with a huge advertisement on it, and it felt like the universe had answered my questions about life. Sort of, anyway.

Clearly, I still have a lot of unanswered ones, and I hope it will always be that way. In the meantime, I thought I'd share what I had written with you in case you're feeling like I was then and how I have been feeling off and on recently as well.

(Because my readers are primarily my friends and family, I feel I should offer this footnote: I recently watched the show "13 Reasons Why," which is about a teenage girl's suicide. In light of that, I'm realizing the poem below could be interpreted as if it were about that topic, but I assure you it is not and was never about that. Of course, though, it would be very important to consider that possibility if anyone you know or love ever shares anything that seems as if it is. However, this poem was just 19-year-old me's attempt at being honest about the full gamut of emotions I experience -- the emotions which I imagine we all experience at some point. <3)


Is this all there is?

A few highlights with futile attempts to make the mundane in between seem not quite so bad?

A few life-enriching conversations?

A couple of AHA! moments?

Some good one-liners that got you a few laughs?

The frequent avoidance of those whom you’d like to keep as acquaintances, and nothing more?

The occasional award for having done something strictly for the recognition?

The few days when you get an epiphany that you have a greater purpose but just aren’t exactly sure what it is?

The compliment here and there that makes you feel pretty even though you know that looking pretty is far from being your greater purpose?

Is this what I’ve been living for?

Is this what I haven’t been dying for?

I want something that I’m dying to live for.

I need something that I’m living to die for.

I live each day thinking, “Today will be the day.”

I get through each day thinking, “Today will be the day it all makes sense.”

Today will be the day when I find out that it has not all been in vain.

It has all been worth it.

Everything leading up to this point has been the means to an incredible end.

Not that I want an end.

I just want the beginning of the end.

Hell, maybe I just want the beginning of the beginning.

I think they tell us that the journey’s half the fun so that we don’t get our hopes up too much.

Don’t get me wrong.

I love life.

There are days when I can’t get enough of it.

The way the glow of the sun casts the earth in gold as it sets.

Meeting new people.

Eating chocolate.

Swimming in the ocean.

Or even a pool.

(I’m not that picky.)

Sitting outside with friends.

Riding a ferris wheel.

Driving with the windows down.

Singing in the shower.

Listening to a grandparent’s story of their youth.

But, then again, there are days when I’ve had enough of it.

Not that I want it to end.

Because I don’t.

Not yet anyway.

I just want there to be more.

Because I’m beginning to fear that there isn’t.

I’m beginning to fear that this is it.

Maybe it’s my own fault.

Maybe life really is what you make of it.

I mean, we see what we want to see.

We hear what we want to hear.

So maybe if we don’t strive to find more, then we never will.

All I know is that if life is just a series of mandatory introductions, adherence to social norms, inevitable “rebellions,” forced conversations, faked identities, textbook problems and answers, failed relationships, frivolous gossip, finger pointing, complaints falling on deaf ears, short-lived states of euphoria, third-party hearsay, the same people in different forms, unmet goals, shoulda coulda wouldas, jaded outlooks, cheap thrills, confessions of guilt, and realizations never put into action.

And potential thrown away.

Then I want out.

So should I be in or out?

Is this all there is?

Am I an optimist or a pessimist?

A realist or an idealist?

Maybe I just am.

I am a hopeful pessimist.

I am a disappointed optimist.

I am a discouraged idealist.

I am a self-loathing realist.

I hope for the best.

Yet I prepare for the worst.

So what am I?

And, more importantly, does it even matter?

Is this all there is?

Am I only a woman?

Am I merely a child of God?

Am I in or am I out?

You tell me.

As I get up to leave this place, I step over a page of newspaper on the ground, intending to leave it, because that’s just the kind of person I’ve become.

I turn around, pick it up, and read the only word printed largely in bold letters on that side of the page:


Thank You.


Do you ever find yourself wondering, "Is this all there is?" If so, how do you get back to feeling excited or motivated about life? What drives you?

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