April 4, 2017

We can have both.

Remember when you were a kid and your parents took you to get ice cream? And you'd go into Baskin Robbins, the cold, sweet delicious air hitting you smack in the face. Under the fluorescent lights, in long freezer cases, laid out in neat rows, there would be an entire selection of beautiful delicious options. 

Every color and flavor under the rainbow. 

And you'd stand in line and wait your turn. 

And when it was time to order, your mom or dad would look at you and say, "Okay, now just pick one."

Impossible, right? How can you ever just pick one?!!?!

So, full disclosure here, but I can't remember going to get ice cream with my parents while I was growing up. I can recall a time or two we got ice cream together while we were on vacation, but for some reason this was not part of our family traditions. Or if it was, I have completely blocked it out. Mainly I wanted to present you, dear reader, with an experience that might be more relatable to you.

My own example of a childhood experience in which I was faced with a difficult choice took place at the dentist. I never minded going to the dentist as a kid. The dental office, which had been decorated by my dentist's wife, was a very magical place. In the waiting area was a rattan egg-shaped chair that hung from the ceiling by a big chain. Perfect for swinging while waiting for your appointment.

Then, while sitting in the dentist's chair, you could look up at a ceiling which had been decorated with all sorts of taxidermy woodland creatures and re-created nature scenes. There was even a big suspended branch with a giant dried wasp net affixed to it. Looking back, this doesn't seem like the most effective way to imbue peace and serenity in a place that invokes anxiety for so many.

My quandary always came at the end of my appointment, when the dentist's assistant pulled out the big basket of colorful erasers shaped like various farm animals.

"You did great during your appointment," she'd say. "Now pick you out an eraser." 

It wasn't stated, but more implied that I was to pick just one. But how? As a child who loved and lived for all things whimsical, how could I ever choose between a pink cow and an orange sheep? Or that elusive green goat? Each cuter and more magical than the previous. I wanted ALL of them.

But taking more than one eraser seemed greedy. And it wasn't fair to the other kids who only got one.

There's something about this practice of just choosing one thing that gets ingrained in us. I guess it's good because it allows a way for us to learn how to put limitations on ourselves.

We can't expect to have all the things we want, all the time. 

And somehow this practice of choosing just one sticks with us and we adopt the belief in our adulthood that we're only allowed to have one of a given thing.

But I wonder if it doesn't also pose a problem. In certain circumstances, actually most circumstances, there is never just one thing. And forcing ourselves to choose means denying another equally strong desire we have that is completely justified.

In this case I'm not talking about actual things...but more about feelings. Feelings that might seem at odds with one another, but in fact couple together quite well...for me anyway. 

Sadness and love. Anger and gratitude. Fondness and frustration. Rage and adoration. These are just a few pairs of equally strong feelings I have had recently. 

And my struggle comes from a belief that in each pair, one must cancel out the other. So, just like with those silly erasers, I'm left with a tough choice.

How can I feel so much love for someone and yet it also brings me complete and total sadness? How can I feel furious about the way a certain situation played out, but also grateful for many aspects of it? How does someone I adore also cause me to have such feelings of rage? 

My typical way of dealing with this has always been to try and examine my feelings to see which is stronger. Which one presents more evidence. Which one makes a better case. Because for some reason, I believed I could only feel one. 

Wrestling announcer voice: 
"Good evening ladies and gentlemen. We've got a doozy of a match for you tonight. First up, fighting in the blue corner, is Sadness, taking on Love in the red corner. These two will duke it out to the death in a heated contest, which is scheduled for one fall." 
It's like saying one feeling must completely and totally win out, canceling out the other. But we all know this is not really how things go. Life is not so black and white. Most of the situations and relationships we find ourselves in are painted in many complicated shades of gray. 

For example: I'm angry about the way things were/I'm grateful for the way things were. 

I tell myself I shouldn't feel angry because all the stuff I'm grateful for should be enough to cancel out the anger. But it doesn't work this way. 

Being angry about certain things doesn't mean I'm not grateful for other things. And it's impossible to choose one, so I drive myself crazy making a case for each. 

Recently, I was talking about this with someone very wise. And I explained this common conundrum in which I find myself. And he said something utterly simple, but totally profound: "Why can't you have both?" 

"Oh, no," I said. "I shouldn't feel this much anger. I should be able to focus on all the things I'm grateful for instead." 

But this little tiny moment of clarity opened up a whole world of possibility for me. I can have both. There's no rule that says I can only have one. And maybe more is better. Isn't that a more authentic experience? 

Feelings are complicated and they tend not to come in loosies, but instead in packs. You never know which ones will lump together and come over you in a situation. It's perfectly normal to feel overwhelmed with fondness for someone and fully frustrated with them at the same time. And it's totally natural to feel love for someone who also makes you sad. 

What isn't natural is trying to deny yourself your right to live out your authentic feelings and emotions. 

Our lives are going to include people who bring out these complex feelings. And it will require us to set boundaries with them differently because of this (although please don't ask me how to do that just yet because I'm still learning myself). 

Ultimately, we have to give ourselves permission to have both.