“I read the news today, oh boy…”
For most of my life, I have believed that sadness is deeper than joy. That crying is good, some kind of holy state, closer to the truth about the world. “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” may have been part of the soundtrack of my youth, but the soundtrack of my brain was more, “Don’t Worry, Be Stupid.”
I worried a lot. My angst over tragedies half a world away may never have done one ounce of good for those suffering. And my suffering often drained me of any energy to do something about it theirs. I thought I was holding them in my heart, the way some people pray. It was unthinkable not to think about the suffering of other people, and my own suffering felt like an alliance. No one is free unless we are all free.
And then I had kids.
The single most surprising thing about my children has been that they are not these melancholy, mellow little things. I had always been described that way and that’s what I thought would come out of my body. Instead, both of my babies absolutely hummed with happy. They seemed full of a deep kind of joy that burst forth the moment they entered the world. They are ridiculously happy.
To be with them, really with them, can be very liberating. To forget the world, to feel free of it. To feel free of terror, of war… But it’s only by dumb luck that I am on this side of the world and not one of those fighting or fleeing.
Weeks like this—when the political moment is so drenched with hatred and suffering and hopelessness—are both harder and easier for me as a mom. On the one hand, I want to read and watch and listen to all of the news I can ingest, to be my old self and pay attention to things that need attention paid to them. Kids distract from that kind of immersion, which can really feel like the right place to be.
On the other hand, I could follow them out of this dark cloud. I could tune it all out. There are so many people who refuse to watch, who think paying attention to the news is nothing but crazy making.
Before I had kids, I was so serious. To have fun, to be happy, to feel like I belonged in the place I was, to leave my mind and be in my own body, felt like a betrayal. Like I was looking away when there was so much happening that needed a witness. That’s not a place you can live all the time, staying with the suffering. So imagine how many times I failed myself. The guilt I felt for just being a person in the world where I was born could be overwhelming.
Whatever time I spent with people living their lives like they belonged to them, like they had a right to be happy, I always found my way back to sad. The world crashed in on me all the time. All I needed to do was watch the news, and I did. I wanted to pay attention. I wanted to live with eyes wide open.
All of the truth felt like it lived in this place of suffering. Bliss was ignorance. There is simply so much wrong with the world. All the time. It never ends—war, starvation, rape, poverty, homelessness, death. All the time. That was the true thing. Not to think about it was a betrayal. I couldn’t bear to feel like there was someone hurting somewhere and I wasn’t feeling some part of their pain.
But then, there are my children. Dancing and laughing and spreading their joy all over the place. Right in front of me. And it was just as real, just as true.
As a mother, I felt that same kind of disrespect I used to feel in a whole new way. To ignore the happiness right in front of me, hanging onto some kind of depression or anxiety about something happening to someone else, felt just as disrespectful. Like I was ignoring my children or trivializing their existence.
I realize it may sound insane. But it’s a revelation for me. This simple thing—being able to hold these two different things at the same time and to feel that they are equally true—is what I have learned from being a mother.
Paying attention to suffering is not a better way to be in this world than paying attention to the happiness that is also all around me.
The joy of children is just as true as anything on CNN.
Of course, children are certainly not the only innocent, beautiful thing in the world. And my children are not pure joy, all day, every day. And most importantly, they are not responsible for my happiness. I can’t hug them close and say, “Mommy really needs your help feeling better today.” I would never want to drain them just to fill some kind of emptiness in me.
But their existence is a huge help. When I watch them, I am grounded. They are just as real and true as anything else. What a surprise. It’s not something I expected from motherhood.
Joy is no less real and true and important than sadness. I still think the sadness I feel when I read the news has something important to tell me. There are people who need our help. I need to help them. I need to do something. But then I need to open up to the rest of the world, the beautiful parts that aren’t suffering, and be as happy as I can manage. To be the world I want to see.
Because bliss is not always ignorance. Sometimes bliss is just bliss.