Create it for yourself and accept you can’t create it for anyone else
My son has this desire to see everyone around him happy. I think he gets it from me. It’s often little, easy things he can do to make the people in his life content. But, like me, he struggles with balancing these wishes with his own wellbeing. He’s sad, gets upset, feels guilty if one of his friends doesn’t like something he’s chosen — a snack to eat, a movie to watch, a video game to play — and he agonizes over the loss. He feels, keenly, the missing joy and happiness in his friend. Takes on the disappointment and gets lost in it.
And it’s in quiet moments before bed, when the curtains are drawn across the windows in his room, shutting out the dark outlines of the back yard, the garages in the alleyway and the park up the street, that his fears most come to life. It’s then, in the dim light of his bedside lamp, warm under winter blankets, head resting on a soft pillow, that he’s most willing to open his heart and speak about his worries. The words, actions, memories that cause him the most distress.
You can’t make anyone happy
Tonight it’s about his friends and a time, months ago when he feels he let them down. Wishes he could have found a way to dish out happiness like a deck of cards, with everyone getting the best hand ever. Except life, let alone card games, doesn’t work like that. I tell him and he knows it’s true, but wishes it wasn’t, still.
“You can’t make everyone happy. You can’t make anyone happy. Their happiness lies within them. Just as your happiness rests within you. Don’t take on the responsibility, little one,” I say, quietly, earnestly, looking into his eyes that are searching for a path to forgiveness, a respite from his guilt.
“You can only feel what you feel and work from that. You can be kind and generous with your friends, always, but not at the expense of your own joy.”
These are hard lessons to learn as a child — and as an adult. That life isn’t always fair. That, in fact, it rarely is. That sometimes we will feel strong and unstoppable, happy, excited, warm. And at others, weak and undeserving, sad, despondent, alone. And every other emotion in between.
“And here comes the best bit,” I whisper. “None of them are real.”
His face looks confused. Not understanding how I could tell him something that on the surface appears to be so wrong. Of course, feelings are real. I feel them, don’t I?
Feelings are not you
“Feelings come and go, they change, they can sit in your heart, your soul, your mind for as long as you give them breath. And then they disappear and other feelings take their place. They’re temporary. Finicky. They’re not you. You’re real and constant. Your feelings aren’t.”
I share with him how I sometimes imagine my feelings as cute cartoony creatures, like Pokémon — an angry one, a sad one, a frustrated one — that’s the sweetest — and I give them each a space to sit and hang out with me. I look at them, accept that they’re there, acknowledge their presence, and practice just sitting and breathing with them. Being still. Being quiet. And not the opposite.
“What’s the opposite?” my son asks.
“Taking them by the hand and running away with them. Letting them fill up my body until I feel them coursing through my veins, taking up all the sound in my ears, the light in my eyes, the softness on the tips of my fingers.
“Kind of what you’re feeling right now,” I say these last words gently and he nods his head. His feelings have overcome him. He worries they will stay with him all night and he will wake up with the same sadness, the same emptiness that fills his whole vision now. The same black hole in his stomach. The same sense of disconnection and grief and hurt.
Gratitude brings joy, peace
I ask him not to run away with the feelings. “Please,” I tell him, smiling, stroking his cheek, “I love you too much to see you go. I would miss you so.”
He smiles. Used to my silly puns. I shut off the light. Glow-in-the-dark planets hanging from the ceiling, gleam above us, silent and unmoving.
Photo by Author
I recount all the things that are beautiful and wonderful in his life. All the things that make him feel loved and seen and treasured. The list is long and he smiles in the dark as he closes his eyes. Does he think I keep a written tally, I wonder, hidden deep within my mother’s pockets, ready to share at a moment’s notice? For I keep talking and listing, my words becoming like whispered mantras, the wonders of his life written with sparkling ink across the shadows of his room. Gratitude and joy filling it completely. His guilt and sadness quelled after being shared, acknowledged, given their voice and their space to roam.
It’s quiet now in the room as I turn to leave. Peaceful. I feel it — and my hope is he feels it, too.