I was driving through Boston recently when I stopped at a light. Next to me was a rust bucket of a car. The driver had long hair, a sleeve tattoo, and a sharp profile that said, “Don’t mess with me.”
Clearly a guy with a hard life and an even harder past.
Yet, in the backseat, I spotted two smiley-faced birthday balloons. One pink, one yellow. A little girl, maybe three or four, was strapped into a car seat and singing, her chubby legs kicking in rhythm.
Sorrow in the front seat. Joy in the back. Maybe that’s everyone’s story.
The next day, I went out to water my garden and marveled at a bright yellow goldfinch alighting in the tall white cosmos. My tomato plants were heavy with ruby-red fruit and the sunflowers were starting to open. Just seeing them made me smile.
When I finished watering, I went inside for breakfast and sat down to read the paper. There was one story about the fire sweeping through Maui and another about a 3-year-old child who died on the bus of migrants Gov. Abbott sent from Texas to Chicago under his Operation Lone Star initiative. I could smell the ashes and my face was wet with tears, imagining how it must have been, fleeing from your burning city. Or sitting with your dying child on a bus that’s taking you somewhere through a foreign land.
Our daughter in Israel called as I was washing the breakfast dishes. As we chatted, I made faces at her baby, a curly-haired redhead who loves to crawl after their cat. I laughed at her antics, but when we hung up, I thought (for the millionth time) about the ongoing conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians and felt a gut-wrenching sorrow. I wondered, too, if our daughter had seen the story in the paper about men blocking women from getting on buses because they thought women should ride in the back—or stay home.
Maybe it’s a mistake to read the paper.
Or maybe it’s impossible to ever be completely happy.
My joy is always colored by sorrow. But the opposite is true, too.
During the pandemic, I grieved for loved ones lost and felt sorrow for my children having to upend their newly independent lives and come home from school and jobs to shelter with us. But I was joyful, too, because my adult children were gathered under my roof for months of board games and TV and communal dinners. It was a life that felt suspended out of time. A gift.
More recently, running on the beach with my dogs, I felt such a lightness of spirit that I laughed as I ran, but the next moment I had these dire thoughts: One day, these particular dogs won’t be with me. And one day I will no longer be able to run.
I had to remind myself that on this day I could run with my dogs, and that was all that mattered.
In his poem, “On Joy and Sorrow,” Kahil Gibran writes, “Your joy is your sorrow unmasked. And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears.”
It is this, I think, that makes us uniquely human, this ability to laugh one minute and cry the next, to embrace joy even while we feel it slip away between our fingers. Recognizing the possibility of holding joy and sorrow together allows us to feel compassion not only for ourselves, but for everyone around us, and that is life’s greatest gift of all.