How To Feel Joy

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“If we don’t listen to the voice of the soul, it sings a stranger tune. If we don’t go looking for what lies beneath the surface of our lives, the soul comes looking for us.” –Elizabeth Lesser

My soul and I need couple’s therapy.

When life feels too real I tend to panic and shut down. I’m actually pretty good at it. Not that it’s a competition. But I mean, if I had to quantify my panic and rate my ability to completely dissolve in terror at the drop of a hat, I’d say my intensity outranks most peoples.

So yeah, I panic and shut down. Then my soul feels all ignored and starts yelling and breaking dishes that I have to clean up, so I start yelling back, “Guess what, I’m going to die one day and it’s going to be scary and suck really bad and no amount of tantruming on your part is ever going to change that and none of this matters anyway so fuck it and fuck you. I’ll just leave the dishes broken on the floor.”

And then my soul and I tiptoe around each other, barely speaking, for weeks after that.

It’s really awkward.

A few days ago, my mom and I sat in my living room and talked about the human condition. We exchanged perspectives on suffering and resiliency and how impossible it sometimes feels to accept joy in a world that can paralyze you with fear.

We talk about stuff like that all the time, but this particular conversation really opened up some windows and let fresh air into my stagnant mind.

I have been hating myself lately for identifying so closely with anxiety because well, it’s just anxiety and obviously there are people out in the world actually experiencing- first hand and in their face- all of the terrible thoughts that have me shaking and choking on air in my nice, cool, locked house nestled in the heart of the good school district of a Midwest American city. With Fruity Pebbles in the cabinet. And my pistol in a safe.

But that right there is the punchline of the whole big panic joke, isn’t it? As soon as you remind yourself how lucky you actually are and how grateful you should be, you bring on a whole new wave of terror.

Dr. Brene Brown calls it foreboding joy. She talks about how we dress rehearse tragedy because we think joy makes us more vulnerable to pain and we want to try to outsmart vulnerability. She even goes as far as to say joy may be the most frightening emotion of all.

I can’t say I disagree.

I have always been a perfectionist. I’ve always been hard on myself and critical of the people around me. And I thought that made me exceptional. I thought that prepared me for the world and meant that I was made of stronger stuff than most. But what it actually meant is I was suited up in armor and fast asleep in a bed surrounded by thorns a hundred feet tall. I was untouchable. And I was never ever happy.

We all have our catalyst for awakening. Mine just happens to be panic attacks. That is my soul stomping around, throwing dishes and yelling at me for being briefly acknowledged and then completely ignored. Because you can’t just start a deep conversation with someone and then start watching TV. You can’t wake up a little and call that an accomplishment.

I have a feeling these moments of unsolicited panic are not going anywhere until I learn what I’m supposed to learn from them. And I have a feeling what I’m supposed to learn from them is how to feel joy.

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