It’s a new year! While 2014 has been mighty chilly here in Ottawa, the end of 2013 and the very beginning of this year gave me the warmth and good fortune of getting to spend time with many of my favourite people of all time, who don’t live here in O-town. When I lived in Nova Scotia, I had a large community in a small town, and the friendships I made while there have been important ones that have endured beyond my move back to Ontario.
Over Thanksgiving, and again more recently when she was visiting me in Ottawa, a dear friend said to me, “Doesn’t it make you bananas to see all of us and know that you don’t live in Nova Scotia anymore? I couldn’t do it.” To be honest, I hadn’t thought about it much, but upon reflection, it got me to thinking about ways through which we try to care for ourselves.
It makes sense—if saying goodbye to dear ones is painful, why put yourself through it when you don’t have to? It’s kind of like knowing that the stove is hot and then choosing to put your hand directly on the burner. We have a natural tendency to want to avoid pain, both physical and emotional. Feeling bad feels bad.
However, it also got me to thinking about the lengths we go to in order to avoid feeling pain; how much we are willing to deprive ourselves in order to avoid the pain of loss. While it may hurt to say goodbye at the end of a wonderful visit with friends in another place, how much is gained during the visiting? It becomes difficult to weigh out the rewarding nature of connecting with others against the cost of separation.
This way of protecting ourselves—avoiding pleasure to avoid the loss of it out of a fear that the loss might be crushing—is not an uncommon practice. We try not to get our hopes up, because we could get disappointed. We try not to dream big, because we could fail. We’re trying to minimize the pain we might experience if things don’t go as planned.
In the end, however, I’ve often found that this kind of self-protection rarely works. We still miss dear ones who are far away. We still get disappointed when we don’t get the job we applied for, or we don’t get to be with the person we wanted to be with. The self-protection may reduce the pain from a 9 to an 8 on a 10 point scale, but pretty much everything above a 7 is more pain than we’d like to feel. And for such a small reduction in the pain, we’re willing to give up SO MUCH. We’re willing to sacrifice the good times, or the hopeful moments in which we really think we can do anything. How much is that feeling worth?
Perhaps I am a compulsive hedonist who gets wrapped up in the moment, but I encourage the vulnerability required to be able to take that risk and connect—connect with others, connect with your own dreams and connect with hope. Yes, feeling bad feels bad, but conversely, feeling good feels good. A tearful goodbye doesn’t erase the lovely weekend of reconnecting. Feeling a sense of hope that you’ll land your dream job feels great and doesn’t erase all the work you put in to try to get the job, even if you weren’t the successful candidate. In fact, feeling connected to others and having hope is what gets us through the hard times.
It seems to all come down to risk—the risk of making yourself vulnerable and putting yourself out there in the hope that the joy outweighs the pain vs. the risk of keeping yourself protected not only from harm, but also from pleasure. But make no mistake, there are risks on both sides. The question is, what prize are you going to aim for? Fulfillment or security? Both have their place and in various circumstances, it may be wise to choose one over the other. But when it comes down to connection and hope, there’s no amount of self-protection that will take the sting out of the loss. I bet on hope. I bet on connection.