Is it possible to be geopolitically informed and be happy at the same time? I wonder sometimes. It feels like the world is backsliding and getting uglier by the day. Although, I suppose the truth is that humans have been doing both good and bad things ever since they evolved. If we let all the bad news wear us down, then evil wins. I think there is a balance to find while staying aware, empathetic and compassionate.
I’ve been brought to tears by the news coming out of Gaza. Before that, I was brought to tears by the news from Ukraine. Videos from the Jan. 6 insurrection made me tremble with fear. In 2020, hearing George Floyd call out for his mama had me bawling.
It can be hard to turn around and giggle with my kids. To post a silly picture of my daughter being cute on Instagram. To feel elated while watching clouds blow by a beautiful maple tree that’s turning gold for the fall. I feel insensitive. How dare I act happy when there are people suffering in horrific ways?
Lessons from Travel
I am often reminded of a trip that I took to Belize with my school’s University Ministry group. We met local social justice warriors who were alleviating poverty in Belize. An itinerant priest took us around as he visited remote churches in villages close to the Guatemalan border. A Belizean contractor supervised us doing physical work on a new church building for one of those remote villages. We met people fighting to improve their lives and the lives around them, and we saw extreme poverty up close.
Several of us struggled with how to integrate our fresh awareness of poverty and suffering with our privileged, American lifestyles. One of the other members of the trip wondered if he should give up all his belongings and sleep on the floor in his apartment. Many of the families we met lived in simple structures with very few possessions. Our leader wisely asked, “Do you think that the people you met on this trip would want you to give up all your things? Would that make their lives better?”
Fight Suffering with Joy
That question has stuck with me for two decades now. We can’t take away the suffering of others. I can’t stop the fighting in Gaza or the war in Ukraine. Suffering is simply a fact of life. We could cover our heads with ash and dirt, throw away all our possessions to live on the floor and avoid posting cheerful pictures on social media. However, I think it would be more honoring to this crazy, messy life we live to choose joy. To giggle with our kids, even while we are intensely aware of children being bombed and maimed on the other side of the world. 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 those streets at the hands of our own police forces.
I try to keep up with current events, sign petitions and write letters to my elected officials. I give money to organizations that help those in need. As an agnostic atheist, I don’t have anyone to pray to, but I send my love and well wishes into the universe and hope for the best. I don’t ignore the suffering of others or gloss over it. But I don’t let it put out my 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 laugh with our friends. To be silly and travel and stay up too late solving the world’s problems over a bottle of wine. Enjoying one another’s company may be one of the most important things we can do in this life. Being part of a community that celebrates the light we see in those around us is soul-saving. We can’t take the suffering away, but we can hold each other’s hands and walk through it together.
This article first appeared on FaVS News.
Sarah Henn Hayward is a voracious reader, a deep thinker, a curious learner, a nature lover, a former Christian, a Doctor of Physical Therapy and a loyal friend. She is the author of a spiritual memoir, Giving Up God: Resurrecting an Identity of Love & Wonder, and a children’s chapter book, Sedona and the Sloth. Her newsletter at sarahhennhayward.com highlights thought-provoking books concerning marginalized communities. She lives in Spokane, Washington, with her husband Dan, and their two children.