Smiling through Tears

This year has been a year of tragic surprises. I have witnessed close friends get divorced, had dear friends put their child into surgeon’s hands, had friends suffer both infertility and pregnancy complications, watched the mother of a dear friend suffer a life-altering stroke, have faced a rare and scary diagnosis that affects several dear family members.

On a larger scale, I’ve been horribly depressed watching the current events in this country. I get a physically ill feeling anytime I listen to Trump open his mouth. Seeing racism wide out in the open again, watching our country separate children from families like they are pawns in a game of political chess, knowing those families and children are suffering life-altering trauma as a result.

It can be hard to turn around and giggle with my kids. To post a silly picture of my daughter being cute on Instagram. I feel insensitive. How dare I act happy when there are people, close to me and world-wide, suffering on such large scales? How am I supposed to go on living my daily (fairly happy and easy) life when I’m so acutely aware of the deep pain that people I love are living in?

I am often reminded of a trip I took while at Marquette to Belize. It was run by our University Ministries group. Those Jesuits got it right. We showed up to observe and learn. We were not “white saviors” coming to paint a church building that didn’t need painting. We met with many local, grassroots social justice warriers who were already in the middle of doing awesome things in Belize. We traveled around with an itinerant priest as he visited remote churches in little villages almost to the Guatemalan border. We did do some physical work on building a new church building for one of those remote villages, working for and with a local, Belizean contractor. So we learned about and saw the extreme poverty up close. We met people fighting to improve their lives and the lives around them. We got to go cliff jumping and explored Mayan ruins as well. The whole trip was just amazing.

Afterwards, we had time to decompress with Ann Mulgrew, a UMin Staff member who had been on this trip many times. A lot of us were struggling with how to integrate our new awareness of poverty, suffering, and generally of the fact of people living such different lives elsewhere than our secluded, American upbringings back home with us. One of the other members of the trip wondered out loud if he should give up all his belongings when we got back home, as we saw entire families living in simple structures with very little in the way of belongings. Ann wisely asked, “Do you think they (the actual people you’ve met on this trip) would want you to give up all your things? Would that make their lives better?”

That question has stuck with me for over a decade now. We can’t take away the suffering of others. The world is chock full of it. People, ourselves include, have suffered, are suffering and will continue to suffer. That is simply a fact of life. Instead of covering our heads with ash and dirt, of throwing away all our possessions to live on the floor, of avoiding posting happy, smiley pictures to social media, it would be more honoring to this crazy, messy life we live to choose joy. To embrace the silly giggles with our kids, even while we are intensely aware of children being kept in cages and sleeping on cement floors. To go outside and play in the streets, even when we’re painfully aware of the fact that Black men and children continue to get gunned down in the streets at the hands of our own police forces.

If we let all the bad news wear us down, then evil wins. I think there is a balance to find of staying sensitive, aware, empathetic and compassionate. Personally, I try to keep up with current events, constantly signing petitions and writing letters to my elected officials, and give money to organizations that try to help those in need. We don’t ignore the suffering of others, gloss over it or bury our heads in the sand and pretend it isn’t happening. But we don’t let it put out our spark either.

Choosing joy can be hard. But I truly believe that our lives are given meaning by the amount of love and joy we pull out of them. It is important to celebrate life, to flirt with our spouses and giggle with our friends, to be silly and to travel and to stay up too late solving the world’s problems over a bottle of wine. It is deeply important to enjoy one another’s company, maybe one of the most important things we can really do in this life. To see each other, to acknowledge each other’s beauty and flaws, and to celebrate the light and life we see in those around us. We can’t take the suffering away, but we can hold each others hands and walk through it together.

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