I have this deep-seated belief, backed up by science that I’m too lazy to research at the moment, that our brains adapt quickly and passionately to negative circumstances. I remember reading something about the ill-fated Donner party that substantiates this theory. In the winter of 1846-1847, a bunch of travelers heading to California got trapped on top of a mountain pass. It was their own damn fault, they shouldn’t have tried to make the attempt that late in the year, but they did and so there they were, snowed in on a mountain between Nevada and California with insufficient food and resources.
Many of us - especially those of us raised in the western U.S. - grew up with the Donner party as a sort of whispered horror story, as the living members of the Donner group resorted to cannibalism to survive the winter on the mountain. When rescuers finally arrived in the spring, they found that the children of the party in particular had grown accustomed to the grim conditions, playing rather happily around the corpses that it had been too cold to bury. Dead bodies and misery had become the new normal, and they, resilient little creatures, had adapted. In a matter of just a few months, they had changed their baseline for life, adjusting it downward by astonishing degrees.
What in the name of Freya, you ask me, does playing around corpses have to do with trusting joy?
I’m getting there. Hang tight.
Neuroscientific research indicates that our brains easily develop the synaptic pathways for negativity. Because detecting threats was necessary to our evolutionary survival, we were more likely to notice danger than we were to light on hope. We are predisposed, on a biological level, to reframe a bad situation as our new normal and adjust our expectations, thoughts, and aspirations downward accordingly. It’s not a design flaw, it was important to staying alive. But it also means that we are astonishingly good at accepting misery as the standard.
And here’s where the truly poisonous bit comes in: when misery is your normal, you stop being able to trust joy.
Most people around my age had grandparents who lived through the Great Depression - an experience of such profound scarcity and despair that I’m not sure anyone who didn’t live through it can fully comprehend it. But most of us remember grandparents who hoarded everything from plastic shopping bags to empty cans to rubberbands, and who fretted at the waste of an unfinished meal. At a formative age, they became accustomed to extreme deprivation, and so expectation of future deprivation informed the arc of their lives. They could not believe, not really, not fully, that there would ever be Enough. Part of them was always preparing for starvation. Even with full bank accounts, full pantries, and full houses, they were waiting for the other shoe to drop, and a part of them had an alert eye for this their whole lives. I admire them. I don’t know if I would have had the gumption to survive the way they did. But I also mourn for the imprint this left on them.
Because of their experiences, they didn’t believe abundance was weight-bearing. They didn’t dare lean on it.
This time of year is a time of great excitement, expectation, and contentment for many people. But for millions and millions more, it serves as a more than usually poignant reminder of loss. It’s the time we see the space where a family member should be, or where a friend once stood. We miss the ones we’re separated from, and we regret not cherishing every moment that we spent together. This time of year also makes the loss of a job more painful, an illness more devastating, and a life transition more agonizing. Institutionalized celebration makes the darkness more keen, a tinsel-wrapped loneliness that aches and throbs.
It sucks, and I cannot make it better.
But I can offer you this thought: when joy happens, whether it’s for a nanosecond or for maybe an entire glorious hour, trust it. Lean on it. It will bear your weight.
The joy may happen when you take a walk with your children in the freezing dusk and they make you laugh with a stupid joke. It may be that teenager, who is “too old” for such things, who wants to curl up on your lap for just a few moments and be held. It may be the line of a poem, or a quote on a podcast. It may be the dawn sunlight breaking through the clouds on your way to work. It may be that really stupid Christmas card that your insane aunt sent you along with a shiny quarter, or the unexpected phone call from an estranged family member. It may be a moment alone with your thoughts in the shower or on the back porch. It may be the perfect creamer in that hot cup of coffee. It may be when your beloved pet sidles up next to you and rests a small, warm head on your lap and looks up at you with trusting eyes.
You will know the joy when it happens, because light and warmth will break through the places where your heart is broken and you will feel, if even just for an instant, that hope is possible.
Trust that. Breathe into it. Fear is going to try and tell you that you’re stupid for feeling that way, that leaning into joy will just make it hurt more when it vanishes. But that fear voice is a liar, and it is wrong. Joy will come back, because it is your birthright, it loves you, and it wants to live with you.
I write this, but I’m terrible at putting it into practice. Things are going well in my life now, and it feels, to be honest, extremely dangerous. It cannot possibly be, I tell myself, that the universe will permit me to be married to a man I adore AND have a job I love. It cannot be reasonable to hope that I should continue to have two daughters who are marvelous and healthy AND a best friend that I would eat live roaches for. It is an abundance of riches, more than I deserve, and I find myself many many times during the day poking at joy with my toe to test whether it really can hold my weight. I don’t want to trust it, because what if it goes away? Where will I be then?
What I’m realizing, slowly, painfully, is that even if joy is impermanent, it is crucial to allow yourself to experience it, in any way you can. Joy is next door to faith and it’s best friends with hope and by allowing it and trusting it when it happens you are welcoming the possibility that life can be good. I don’t know if it will help make life good in reality. But I do know that by refusing to lean into joy, you are guaranteeing that life will be miserable.
Three years ago, I was trapped in an abusive marriage. I’d willfully ignored warning signs prior to our wedding, and once the ring was on my finger, his mask fell off completely. The viciousness of our life together was exceeded only by my despair at ever emerging from the situation. I was blocked in, I thought. I’d sold my home to invest in a joint house I could never have afforded on my own; I had a job but no savings, he was in control of our finances, and I had committed my children and his to a new life on which I felt I was obligated to follow through. Part of me believed that if I just worked hard enough, I could make it better. I cleaned the house frenetically, I made home-cooked meals, I tried appeasement and diplomacy. But it only got worse, and I collapsed inward.
It took everything I had to leave. It was my second divorce, which added some extra automatic shame. For two months after leaving, I was homeless. I drifted from extended stay hotel to extended stay hotel to a friend’s basement, borrowing money and running up credit card debt, carting along everything I could carry with me, along with my two teenage daughters. I didn’t know if I would survive it and a big part of me didn’t want to. I didn’t feel that I deserved to live after the choices I had made and the suffering and displacement I had subjected my children to.
Part of the way through this stint of homelessness, my parents flew my children out to Utah, where they live, for a visit. In order to spare the girls a layover, I drove them to Atlanta for a direct flight to Salt Lake City. I remember my ache at their departure was tempered by my relief that at least they wouldn’t be stuck in an extended stay hotel with me.
I drove back to Alabama in the late afternoon. I had barely slept in days; I wasn’t eating; I was lightheaded with grief and heavy with self-reproach. I tried to listen to an audiobook, but the words grated. I could not recall the last time I had not felt desperate and wretched and violently lonely.
As I drove westward on interstate 20, the sun began to descend toward the horizon. All at once a cathedral of clouds was lit from within; bright golden sunlight burst through in brilliant shards, and it felt as if the sky blazed with holy fire. I pulled off on the next exit, chased the sunset, and then parked and got out of my car to stare at the spectacle.
I ugly cried as I watched the light blaze into the skyline. For just a moment - less than a minute, possibly less than a second - I felt an ember of joy flare to life in my chest. It winked out again, quickly, but it had been there. I did not fully trust it. I did not believe in that moment that my life would hold good things. But I still look back on that moment as a beacon in a life that felt inescapably tethered to unhappiness.
I am lucky enough to know now how the later chapters of that story play out. I am fortunate that from my current vantage point I see me and my daughters move into a cramped, drafty apartment where we can start to rebuild; I watch my eldest daughter graduate from high school with honors and take a college scholarship at her first choice school; I see us purchase a house that is warm and comfortable and paint the walls bright colors; I witness myself marry a man with a generous heart and tender spirit whose love is a healing balm. I get to see the bits of the story where I begin the hard work of therapy for healing trauma.
But in that moment, watching that sunset on the side of I-20, I had no idea how the story would go. And in the midst of crisis, trauma, difficulty, we don’t know. We may not even have hope. Sometimes all we have is the hope that hope might someday exist. Sometimes it feels like we’re always going to be stuck in that frozen landscape of death, no rescue party is ever coming, and we’re going to be cold forever.
In those times, it feels easier to embrace a new normal of misery than to open yourself to the possible heartbreak of wanting something more beautiful and then risking its loss. But I promise, I swear to you, that if you trust that joy when it happens, if you open yourself to the possibility that it is the messenger for something far greater and more magnificent than you’ve ever experienced before, you will find that it is worth it. You will find that joy can be trusted. You will find that it can bear the weight of your hope. And having that moment of wonderful, however fleeting, is better than the certainty of wretched.
And after all, the alternative is being stuck on that frozen mountain forever. But spring is coming, and no snow lasts forever.