Bittersweet. That’s how I feel right now.
My 30-year-old son is to be married on New Year’s Eve, to a woman we all adore.
And my 82-year-old father has just been told there’s a 99% likelihood he has lung cancer. The growth in his left lung is so vast, the upper part of his lung has collapsed.
For the last eight months, I’ve been writing about how to live your life beyond polarity. Not clutching to one or the other end of a partisan or economic spectrum. Not ignoring opposing points of view.
It’s not easy engaging people with contrary opinions on how to compete in trade, do politics, deal with sexual harassment, improve mental health, curb white privilege, or prevent nuclear war with North Korea.
Yet it can seem even harder to deal with your own opposing emotions. How do we absorb the full gamut of feelings that pulse through us?
At this bittersweet moment, how do I hold such intense joy and such intense sadness? Not one emotion in each hand, to be juggled. Not one hand behind my back, hoping the sadness can be ignored.
I’m drawn to cradle these ‘opposing’ emotions. Together. In both hands. At the same time.
I was warned: Beyond duality living won’t be easy.
Sister Joan Chittister, a Christian visionary, describes the double-edged nature of living with opposites. If we pray for love, we also get hate. Ask for hope, you’ll get despair too. An invitation to faith will bring doubts.
Living beyond duality means accepting the paradox. You can’t have light without dark, here’s how she puts it:
Life ends in death; what brings us joy will surely bring us an equal and equivalent amount of sorrow…
Mystic and poet Kahlil Gibran said something similar:
Joy and sorrow are inseparable… together they come and when one sits with you… remember that the other is asleep upon your bed.
So, how does this work? If I hold both joy and sorrow, maybe it’s like adding sweet sugar to bitter coffee. Both tastes becoming less intense.
Honestly, it doesn’t feel like any of my emotions are less intense.
Watching my son and his future bride brings me wave upon wave of intense joy. Nothing remotely saccharine. No muting. These emotions are powerful. Undiminished. This is among the most joyful times of my life.
Alternately, I feel deep sadness hearing Dad’s vibrating cough and shallow breathing. My heart drops thinking about the path ahead. There’s a meaningful relationship here. Yet, this sorrow doesn’t replace or cancel out the joy. And vice versa.
Knowing how much my Dad means to me, I also feel joy when I think of him. It makes me smile, especially recalling the times at the farm when our sons were young.
They adored riding on a tractor, securely wedged between the steering wheel and Papa Wally’s knees. Mesmerized by the wafts of smoke spiraling out of the pipe permanently clamped between Dad’s teeth. Grabbing at the brim of the cap that protected his white forehead.
A bittersweet moment in time
People say, time heals and time does seem to have healing power. I pray time dulls the sadness but doesn’t fade the feeling of joy. Can I have it both ways?
To understand how time plays with our emotions, I read Einstein’s Dreams by physicist Alan Lightman. It’s an enchanting collage of the many ways we can perceive time. Lightman conjures up fables to explain these ideas about time, ideas bouncing around in the dreams of Albert Einstein as a young scientist.
Reading the book is like opening up an advent calendar. Behind the door of each short chapter is a different scenario for thinking about time. Here are few scenarios that resonated:
Time is sticky. We can get stuck in time, trapped in a moment of time, endlessly repeating the same rituals over and over.
We can live in the moment where every action is an island in time:
“Families comfort a dying uncle not because of a likely inheritance but because he is loved at the moment…It is a world of impulse. It is a world of sincerity. ”
In a world where people live forever:
“Grandparents never die, nor do great-grandparents, great-aunts and great-uncles, great-great-aunts, and so on, back through the generations, all alive and offering advice. Sons never escape from the shadows of their fathers. Nor do daughters of their mothers. No one ever comes into his own.”
Time can stand still. In another dream, people don’t remember the past. In the next dream, people’s lives are ruled by visions of the future. Einstein also dreams that there is no future. That time stops and starts at intervals.
I wonder. Could the embrace of a newly-married couple be frozen in time? Or would that feel dead. Like beautiful butterflies mounted in a case.
And, what if time flowed backwards? Grandfathers could grow young again. And, then?
Living in the moment
Friends encourage me to live impulsively. Live in the moment. Just feel what I feel, at this moment. Feel the joy. Feel the sorrow.
It’s alluring. But I can’t stop myself from looking forward, from time to time. Anticipating what lies ahead. What cancer treatments will my Dad choose? How will he respond? Will he be in pain?
In truth, the future is unknown for both my father and my son.
And wouldn’t it be folly to deny myself memories of the past? One of the memories that keeps popping up is the memory of my own wedding, 35 years ago.
Every wedding, I watch for this moment. The father of the bride stands at the door of the church. The bride on his arm. The father pauses to look at his daughter. And, then, they start down the ceremonial path to the waiting groom.
In that moment--that pause–there is, simultaneously, joyful anticipation that something really significant is about to happen and the bittersweet letting go.
This is life. Alpha to omega. Birth to death. Creation to redemption. Reconciling these opposites is what we do to make the journey meaningful during the time in between.
“God turns you from one feeling to another and teaches by means of opposites so that you will have two wings to fly, not one” ~ Rumi
I really hope I can soar through 2018. On April 12th, 2018, my parents celebrate their 60th wedding anniversary. I anticipate another bittersweet moment.
Anticipating the future
At this moment in time, I’m open to joy and I’m open to sadness. I want to really taste the unique flavour of each emotion, not some diluted version of either.
I’m trying to live with one foot firmly rooted in the present while the other gets ready to step into the trajectory of the future.
It’s much like how I felt when I looked at my father on my wedding day.
Donna Kennedy-Glans, December 28th, 2017
11 thoughts on “Cradling Joy & Sadness in both hands”
So sorry to hear about your father.
Life is a journey of gain and loss. In my experience (we had my wife’s father in our home for his last 5 years including a year-long battle with cancer up until two days before he passed), I found relief in fully embracing the emotion, connecting with others feeling the same way and being truly grateful for the gift of Mike in our lives. While 2000 was the most difficult year for us, thanks to Mike, it was also the most enriching. As he reflected on his life, he guided mine.
Thanks Greg. Bittersweet. Everyone has their own experiences with these opposing emotions – joy and sorrow. It’s amazing how we navigate in that space. The part of human potential we rarely talk about.
Thank you, Donna.
I am learning again that our true legacy is our family.
You and sorrow are here now.
Yes, David, that is true. Friends & family.
Thanks Donna. This resonates with me particularly strongly right now as my parents are going through some major health challenges and they live several provinces away. I am also watching my children grow with pride and als tinges of sadness as they reach preteen and teen years.
Thoughts and prayers are with you and your family at this time. Life is full of old and new memories yet to come.
Thanks Frank. Agree – I don’t want to be stuck in time!
Donna, what a touching blogpost. I am sorry to hear of your dad’s illness and delighted that you are so joyful about your son’s upcoming nuptials. May you find peace as you hold the polarities in your hands. Thinking of you as you move into 2018.
Thank you for sharing and reflecting on the moments of joy, hope, fear and sorrow. It is particularly hard to stare death in the face when it will ultimately impact family. But it is a reality we cannot avoid.
So at this time harness the fear and relish the delight and excitement as your son steps forward into the next chapter of his life. Celebrate your potential new roles as in laws and potentially grandparents. Have a wonderful celebration today. Know that your Dad will be intent on celebrating this occasion. All the best to you, Graydon and family as 2017 comes to a close. May 2018 bring you peace, joy and happiness.