Feeling bad when life is good

The other night at bedtime my toddler was playing every parent’s favorite game, crying for no reason to trick me into going back in his room. Every time I walked in, he immediately went silent, closed his eyes and snuggled down to sleep. Far from being annoyed (at least the first couple of times), I marveled at the power I have to comfort him simply with my presence. All his fears and anxieties disappear when he hears my voice or feels my touch. As I stood over his crib watching his eyelids flutter and his breath slow into sleep, I wished I had the same power to quell the fears and anxieties of the world outside my little family—because the past year has brought plenty of them.

In the past few weeks I’ve had the same conversation with so many friends. The script goes like this: Life has never been better—work is great, marriage is good, the kids are all right, things are fine financially—but I’m feeling depressed, or anxious, or angry and I can’t shake it.

These feelings follow my sweet friends around, turning what should feel like a beautiful life into a joyless existence. These conversations inevitably culminate in the same question: If my life is so good then why do I feel so bad?  To which my response is, because you’re paying attention.

Let’s be honest, it was a shitty year. Freedom of the press was attacked. Babies were taken away from their parents at the border. A woman was forced to relive her sexual assault on national television. Innocent black people were killed by police while doing things like sitting in their own apartments, driving cars, and shopping at the mall. Regardless of how you feel about any of these happenings, the rancor and hostility surrounding them has settled into our collective psyche. As a country we are universally fearful and angry.

So yes, it makes sense that you’re feeling depressed and anxious. I’d argue (stay with me here) that this is a good thing. It does not mean you are broken; it means you are human. It signals the ability to think outside yourself, notice injustice, and feel empathy. The hard part comes with figuring out what to do with all your human-ness.

I struggle with this daily. Mostly, there is the guilt—why is my life so wonderful while others suffer so greatly? What did I do to deserve to all that I have?  I’ve had to get comfortable with the fact that the answer is “nothing”. I did nothing to deserve all that I have, other than get lucky enough to be born into the right family at the right time. This realization makes bearing witness to the suffering of others even more acute, because there by the grace of God go I.

In an attempt to neutralize the guilt, my instinct is to stop enjoying my life. I focus outside my comfortable existence on all the terrible things happening to others; as if refusing to enjoy the gifts I’ve been given will somehow equalize things. I confuse moments of joy and contentment with intentional blindness to the suffering of others. As if by taking my eye off the pain of the world for one moment and allowing myself to feel happy means I’ve failed some unpassable test of what it means to be a good person. The truth is that I need those moments of joy in order to be good, both to my family and to the world.

We’re no use to anyone if we don’t put on our own oxygen mask first. That can mean stepping away from the news or social media for period of time, getting more sleep, or ordering pizza three nights in a row instead of cooking dinner. It can also mean bigger things, like seeking out professional help or medication. In so many of the conversations I’ve had lately, people seem to believe that because they have so much good in their lives, the depression or anxiety they’re feeling somehow isn’t real or deserving of treatment. Not so, dear friends. This was always how the world was going to be: beauty and suffering. Pain and joy. Our responsibility is to not let one outweigh the other, and to hold them both in our hearts.

The other day a friend struggling with anxiety texted me while on vacation with her husband. It was a long overdue trip to relax and reconnect, but her head was spinning with all the bad in the world.

“I just got upset snorkeling,” she said. “Looking at the beautiful fish and then immediately thinking we are destroying our environment.”

“Please honey,” I texted back. “Just get some Lexapro and enjoy the fish. The fish want to be enjoyed.”

The fish do want to be enjoyed. So do our kids, our partners, and our families and friends. They need our love and attention, just as much as we need the moments of joy they bring us. This holiday season, and every other season, please give yourself permission to feel that joy. You deserve it.


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