It’s difficult for me to put into words the emotions I after learning about the devastating massacre that occurred in Las Vegas followed by another shooting at a church in Texas. I can’t even imagine the excruciating pain felt by the loved ones of those that died or were injured. I can’t imagine the terror felt by concert attendees and church attendees that we consider “lucky,” because they walked away with their lives. The sheer amount of devastation and the number of people that will be forever impacted by these tragedies are innumerable. It is too much to even process.
As stories about the victims flood in, I read each one carefully. I put myself in the shoes of their mother, siblings, friend, child. It is frightening how so many lives can be forever changed in just a couple of seconds. A terrifyingly familiar feeling grips me as I read about the victims of the Las Vegas shootings. I start to envision it is my mom, my dad, my brother, my best friend who died. Without a doubt, my biggest fear is someone in my circle dying, because I know first hand the pain an untimely and preventable death brings to so many people.
In September 2012, my favorite Uncle was shot and murdered by his drug addicted son in law. I can still remember my Mom’s horrified voice when she called me to tell me the news like it was yesterday. I can remember seeing my family gathered together in shock and horror. I can remember people spilling out of the funeral, because there was not enough space to seat all of the people who loved and admired my Uncle. He was the kindest and most generous person I have ever met, and just being around him made you feel happier. He emanated love in a way that I have yet to see replicated. Experiencing and witnessing the ripple affect of grief that transpires after a sudden death assured me of one thing: I never wanted to feel this way ever again.
In the months following his murder, I thought about death and my close relationships in a way that I had never considered before. I wanted to make sure I protected myself from the indescribably painful feeling of losing someone that you love. I thought that I could protect myself from getting “too hurt” if I didn’t become quite so attached to people. I found myself thinking of my loved ones dying, and grappling with it in my mind to see how I would react before it actually happened. Before my Dad went on an airplane, I would calmly think, “What if his plane crashes? How would I react? How would this impact me and my family?” I would premeditate tragedy in my life so that I could feel some semblance of control and be prepared in case anything did happen. My reasoning was that if I had already thought and prepared for future pain, the sting wouldn’t hurt as badly.
These feelings only escalated when I recently got married. I love my husband more than life itself and the thought of anything happening to him brings tears to my eyes. I also feel myself sometimes wanting to pull away from him slightly, and love him just a little bit less, as a preemptive measure to decrease the devastation that would occur should something happen to him. I feel myself wanting to love a little less deeply, feel just a little less for him as an insurance policy against the immeasurable pain I would feel if something were to happen to him.
After my husband left for work this morning, I wanted to listen to something that would take my mind off the constant news stream and updates concerning the Texas attack. I scrolled through my saved podcasts and selected an interview with best-selling author and shame research extraordinaire Brene Brown, in hopes that listening to a podcast called “Daring Greatly” would provide an emotional reprieve.
I was half listening to the podcast when Brene said something that made me stop and rewind to make sure I heard correctly. She said that the most terrifying, difficult emotions that we experience as humans is joy.
At first, Oprah didn’t understand how joy could be the most terrifying emotion, but I immediately resonated with this assertion. Joy sometimes terrifies me as well. Sometimes, when I am in the midst of a moment of deep joy, a small under current of fear surfaces. I think, “Uh oh, am I feeling a little too happy? I don’t want to drop from this high up.” I want to be able to control my environment. The slight problem with my need for control is that most things in life are not in your control. Your entire life can change in an instant, even at the end of a fun country concert in Las Vegas, or in the pews at church on a regular Sunday morning.
Brene says “When we lose our tolerance for vulnerability, joy becomes foreboding. I am not going to feel you, I am not going to soften into this moment of joy because I am scared it’s going to be taken away. The other shoe is going to drop. We try to beat vulnerability to the punch.”
She shared a powerful interview with a man she met, that completely changed my perspective on a habit I had cultivated since my Uncle’s death in 2012. This man said he spent his whole life making sure he never got too excited, too joyful about anything. He stayed right in the middle so that if things didn’t work out he wasn’t devastated, and if they did work out, it was a pleasant surprise. In his 60’s, he was in a car accident and his wife of 40 years was killed. He said, “the second I realized she was gone, the first thing I thought was, I should have leaned harder into those moments of joy, because not leaning harder did not protect me from what I feel right now.”
Brene says “We are trying to dress rehearse tragedy, so we can beat vulnerability to the punch.” She explains that joyful people do it differently. For example, when they look at their children with the feeling of overwhelming love, and then feel the shudder of fear of something terrible happening to them, instead of sinking into that shudder of fear, they decide to practice gratitude. They choose to not dress rehearse tragedy because they realize that won’t protect them in a tragedy.
Gratitude is a tangible practice. When you actively practice gratitude you go through the day looking for it. You need to appreciate the little things. The hardest loss isn’t in the extraordinary things, it is in the ordinary things. It is the ordinary moments, the screen door slamming, kids fighting in the backyard, the way your spouse sets the table. These are the moments that are in front of us every day that we can stop for a moment, and think that we are so very grateful.
Whenever you feel yourself gripped with fear, or even anger, practice gratitude. Quickly think of 3 things that you are grateful for and allow that feeling to resonate in your body for a few moments. It is literally impossible to feel negative feelings at the same time you are feeling gratitude.
One of the best ways I have found to cultivate gratefulness in my every day life is through writing in my journal. Whenever I am going through a difficult time, gratitude journaling never fails to improve my outlook. Before I go to bed, I write down three specific moments where I felt happy or saw beauty during the day. It forces your brain into a feeling of happiness and gratitude before you go to bed, and is also a great way to change your daily routine to actually be on the lookout for moments of joy throughout the day. Sometimes my moments of gratitude are something as simple as seeing a beautiful sunset or laughing with a friend. Even the most terrible day will have nuggets of joy. It’s about seeking out those moments instead of allowing yourself to wallow in the negativity which is all too easy to do.
This podcast could not have come at a more timely moment. While I still feel the grip of sadness and empathy for those that lost loved ones in the most recent mass shootings, I am consciously trying to not fear seep into my life. I don’t want to be fearful that something will happen every time my husband gets in a car to leave for work in the morning, or when I attend a concert or church. When you are leaning into joy and seeking moments of gratitude throughout the day, it prevents the fear and the “horror dress rehearsal” from ruining that joy.
Even though it seems counter intuitive to look for joy and gratitude in the moments of pain and suffering, it the best way to guard against fear and sadness. Although I may not be able to control my environment, I can control my reaction to any situation.