I once read a theory that left a big impression on me. Imagine a room full of light— the sun shining in through every window, shadow-filled corners illuminated by table lamps and wall scones. Now try and bring some darkness into the room. Just hold a fistful of it in each hand and then release. The darkness evaporates before you can blink. Try bringing in armfuls of it, suitcases packed with bleak abyss, it won’t matter one bit. It will all disappear, swallowed up whole by the sun’s rays and the electric glow. Now take that same room and draw the shades, turn off the lamps and wait until nightfall envelops it all. Step inside and light a single candle and watch the light it radiates spread, casting shadows on walls, revealing swatches of furniture fabric, the glint of a mirror. Where there is only light, darkness cannot thrive and where there is only darkness, the glow of a single candle will ever so gently spread across a room.
Two weeks ago was the International Day of Happiness. It was also the first day of spring in the Western Hemisphere and Navroz, the New Year across much of the Middle East and Central Asia. It was a day filled with light, both literally, as the scale tipped towards daylight ever so slightly, and figuratively, as families, neighbors and friends came together to celebrate. I even went to Bowling Green on the southern tip of Manhattan to try and balance an egg on its end at the precise moment of the Equinox. Kids and adults sat with their noses an inch from the ground, both delighted when their egg stood tall. The day was full of joy and a relief at the coming of spring. The #happinessday tag branded photos of puppies, smiling couples, best friends and indulgent meals across social media. The world was on a quest to find the happiness hiding out in the wrinkles of their day. And yet.
And yet Russia had just invaded Ukraine, butchering ties with the U.S. along the way. More than twenty countries were still hopelessly looking around the Indian Ocean for a ghost plane that disappeared with more than two hundred on board and we can be sure that somewhere someone discovered grief for the first time.
Amongst all of that pain we still came together and consciously chose to feel happy. We made the effort to celebrate instead of lamenting the woes of the world and there is no shame in that. Someone once said that we cannot get sick enough to heal a single person. It’s tempting to think that carrying the weight of humanity on your shoulders is a way of paying your respects to those who are suffering the worst of it, but we do not dishonor those who suffer by being happy. We dishonor them when we squander the opportunity for joy. Put another way, by locking myself into a pitch-black room with you I am doing neither of us any good.
While at the airport in Los Angeles last fall, a gunman opened fire at the security point where one of my friends was checking in for her flight to New York. She ran for her life and hid in the first place she could find, a closet. With no way of knowing what was going on outside the door, she sat in fear for her life while the gunman shot down the terminal. The experience changed her, initially leaving her with severe trauma that lingered for weeks after the shooting. She has been on a long road to recovering her former self. Here was a darkened room, indeed. What could I do for her? What would you do if it were your friend? Would you board up the windows and shut off any remaining light by incessantly reminding her of the horror she had gone through? Send her articles about the shooting, making her relive the event over and over again? Unless you are a really crappy friend, I imagine you wouldn’t. Instead, I think you would bring some light into her life, pointing out the ribbons of sun coming in through the cracks in the blinds, change the lightbulbs in the wall scones and maybe even coax her to take a peek outside. You’d make her laugh, you’d let her know she’s loved and you’d tell her that you have unwavering faith that it will get better, even when she doesn’t believe you.
The way I treated my friend after her ordeal is how I like to treat the planet. The world is not our enemy, but a really good friend who is going through a terrible time. Focusing on what has gone horribly wrong will only throw it further into darkness. So what’s the solution? How do you stay happy, bring about social change and stay present to the current state of affairs without drowning in the darkness that stains almost every sphere of our communal life? The author Thomas Troward once said, “The art of floatation was not discovered by contemplating the sinking of things.” If love, hope and peace are the things that we collectively want, then we have to think of how to create more of them rather than focusing on their absence. I say, let’s turn on the light.
P.S. It is really difficult to be a beacon of hope for the world when you yourself are in trouble. If you are the one in need of a friend right now, share with someone who can shoulder the burden of your pain. If there is no one close to you, find a hotline that you can call to speak to a counselor. If there are no services available where you live, send me an email and I will do my best to help.