Perhaps it’s not the surprise that brings us joy, but the way that when we are walking around worried and anxious, in a kind of defensive crouch--a happy little surprise breaks through that armor. We get an almost child-like thrill for a second because we momentarily forget to be worried or grumpy, and it introduces some play and some delight into life. -Elizabeth Sullivan
The Hero’s Journey Through Everyday Life
by Elizabeth Sullivan, MFT Intern
“I am in general a very pessimistic person with an optimistic, day-to-day take on things. The bare facts of life are utterly terrifying. And yet, one can laugh. Indeed, one has to laugh precisely because of the darkness: the nervous laughter of the trenches.” —Alain de Botton
The blog post I was going to write had to do with surprise as a key to joy. Something about human beings needing, after food, sleep, and security, and among other important things like love—some surprises. Not that they have to be big or glamorous: running into an old friend, someone bringing fresh raspberries to the morning meeting, a free hour of unexpected time to yourself. But in order not to succumb to listlessness, to restlessness, our days cannot be identical.
I think we all tend to crave signs and signals that might indicate things are looking up or heading in a positive direction—I’ve noticed this with my clients, too. And a little sign that there is reason for hope can be helpful day-to-day. In fact, one way I can tell that someone’s turned a corner from depression is to notice their newfound ability to appreciate and feel gratitude for things that went unnoticed during the depressed time, like the coziness of a rainy day, or a friend’s small attentions.
Then I woke up and my car window had been smashed in. It made me late for the dentist where I got the bad news that I had my first cavity in years. I won’t go on--who hasn’t had a bad day? But I felt the lesson of the day was that of course surprises can be very bad too. They are in fact a brief, emotional event that can be positive or negative.
So what am I ruminating about? Perhaps it’s not the surprise that brings us joy, but the way that when we are walking around worried and anxious, in a kind of defensive crouch--a happy little surprise breaks through that armor. We get an almost child-like thrill for a second because we momentarily forget to be worried or grumpy, and it introduces some play and some delight into life. And so it’s not boredom, exactly, but armor against vulnerability that is the problem.
And it’s the joy or the optimism we’re really after. And the defensive crouch, the dread—these are what we have to heroically defeat each day in order to live life with joy and spirit. We need these clues about what might help us feel better each day, because everyday life can be so hard.
The sense that we are on a hero’s journey is another bit of play that can help us soften the armor; we can narrate ourselves into a sense of overcoming the treachery and brutality of life: the subway, the traffic jam, the envy of others. The hero says to themselves: “even if I sometimes wish I could be rescued; I know I will be proud of handling this problem with integrity.” Or, “even though my partner is being a turkey, I can take responsibility to make the first move to be friendly again.”
The hero’s journey is a way of seeing obstacles and hardship as challenges to be met with courage. I notice that this stance towards the suffering of everyday life is often incredibly effective, with adults and with kids. They may groan a bit, but kids tend to like the idea that parents can be inspiring, and can offer a declaration like, “well, it’s very tough, but in our family, we don’t give up when things get hard!”
So let us all cultivate our inner hero. The journey through everyday life is the quest we face—the point is to love this life we are given, and to feel as much joy as we can while we are here.
Elizabeth Sullivan helps moms and parent couples learn to self-nurture and thrive. She is in a 2012-2013 Fellowship at the Palo Alto Psychoanalytic Center, a program of SFCP. She practices in San Francisco.
Labels: Elizabeth Sullivan, Hero, Hope