During the darkest depths of last year, I sat alone on a leafy sidewalk in West Sydney Suburbia.
Birdsong echoed amongst solemn trees and tears burned my eyes as they streamed into the swirling dust at my feet. There were no souls to witness my despair, and I was always grateful for that.
Face upturned to the sky, I sobbed my heart out to a God I was sure was not listening, or if he was, was punishing me for something. I was mad at him. Mad at everyone. I was angry that the sun could continue to shine so brightly in a universe that allowed someone I loved so deeply to be stolen away, just like that. That people could carry on with their lives, not knowing that my whole world had ended in a split second, a single phone call.
My worst nightmare had become reality and there was nothing I could do to escape it.
I didn’t recognise myself any more. Where was the girl made of light and sunshine? Who laughed and loved and revelled in the beauty of this world. Who was this monster that could give nothing to those she adored, this empty shell that cowered in rain and darkness, trapped in a misery that felt like death itself. I didn’t know her at all.
I could see no way out. I had nowhere to go, nothing to look forward to. The future that had been so certain once upon a time had fallen around me; broken pieces of a shattered dream. I believed that I would never be okay again. That I would always hurt this way. That the darkness would never leave me.
And I was so very afraid.
Hands grasped for me, arms held me closely. Voices soothed and loved me, but it wasn’t enough. I tried to outrun the fear, letting the wind and the sea soothe me, letting the burning in my calves remind me, that I was still here, still alive. I longed to banish the emotional anguish with my physical pain, but it never seemed quite enough.
My demons were held at bay when I walked side by side with people that cared about me. Yet, I could sense the ghoulish delight of my nightmares lurking in the gloom nearby, sharpening their claws, ready to tear me to shreds as soon as I was alone. In my exhaustion I fell to them time and time again. I was a drained, broken creature.
I finally understood why people choose to leave this world before their time.
How the spectres of depression and hopelessness claim them, offering them death in the guise of tranquillity. I had always thought that they were selfish souls, turning off their bright lights too soon, unthinking of the horror of their loved ones. And now I know that I was in no position to judge. That love isn’t always enough to overcome the terror that the agony you feel might torment you forever.
It’s true that time is a healer. Yet, the grief never leaves you, not completely. The wound simply changes. The raw angry chasm of vulnerable flesh, prodded over and over until you can’t take the torture anymore, begins to knit together. It still hurts, but it becomes a low dull throb; a constant aching companion to your day. It sits in the back of your conscious, and sometimes, when it thinks you are not paying it enough attention, it shoots a searing white-hot pain into your heart, sending tears tumbling once more.
But those days are gradually fewer, and further between. You realise that happiness is fleeting, and should be celebrated in all its glory, but that it cannot always be constant in this unpredictable life. Nor should it be, for without the darkness, can we ever truly love the stars?
I started to wonder about the pursuit of happiness. The way it has become commoditised in our society. The way that people seek more and more of it, thinking that if they could just get that guy, or that dress, or if they could only earn that much, then elusive happiness would be theirs. It made my heart ache, the way people paint their lives in public to show how picture perfect they have it. As though these external things could bring them lasting happiness. Boats and cars and expensive holidays. Fake smiles and false Facebook highlight reels hiding a much darker reality.
I gave it all up last year.
I let everyone see my misery in all its glory. It was difficult, it was uncomfortable, but mostly it was freeing. There was no pressure to be happy 24/7, and I let it all go. You learn that the people that really love you will continue to show you, no matter what. A beautiful lesson indeed.
I reframed my thoughts about the purpose of life. What if the goal is not always to be happy, as everyone tells us it is? What if “happy ever after” isn’t what we should be wishing for at all? What if, instead, it is about getting to a position where happiness and sadness do not define you or your place in the world anymore. If you could come to realise that there is something much more valuable that you can give to yourself in the face of any emotion.
What if you found peace instead?
There’s a certain magic in realising that your foundations are deep and unshakeable, even in the storming winds of this world. Life happens. Things will hurt you. You will get mad. Tears will blind you. Your past might haunt you. You will have bad days at work. The rain will ruin your perfectly styled hair and you will want to scream as you miss your bus by a millisecond. You will lose people and find people and fight with people. You just will. It’s life. It’s messy and complicated and it’s wonderful. Let it all happen. You can’t control it anyway.
These days I give myself permission to rise and fall with these moments, centred on the knowledge that I am content in myself regardless of them. The seasons will change and this too shall pass. I release suffering when it no longer serves me. I grow from it when it does. I make space for happiness when I can, but I don’t beat myself up when I am not. I have faith that I will smile again. I always do.
I don’t always get it right of course, but I am trying. I meditate to find my peace. I seek to follow the practises of the bodhisattva-warriors, as I gradually send that calm out into the world beyond myself and my circle of loved ones. I’m still learning, but the intention soothes me, and that’s where I try to turn when chaos descends.
When people ask me now what I want from life, I no longer answer “To be happy.” (Though of course I welcome happiness with open arms). My wish these days is for the stillness that whispers peace into my heart. I finally understand that there is nothing more beautiful in this world than a contented soul, and that is what I choose.
Author: JoJo Rowden
Editor: Catherine Monkman
Photo: Michael Knapek/Flickr
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