“Joy is the most vulnerable emotion we experience.” – Brene Brown
We called it “Irish fatalism” in my family, and I always thought that it was a gift and a curse, unique to my clan and elevated to an art form by each generation, kind of like the flying Wallendas and their high wire act.
In moments of bliss, it would start: the heart-pounding fear that settling into unabashed happiness, or even just admitting that things were good, that my family was well and happy, would somehow doom it into non-existence. I wasn’t particularly optimistic, that was true, but if my tendency to prepare for the worst could not be attributed to my ethnicity, then certainly my temperament, and my job as an ICU nurse. Early losses had taught me that I was not immune from tragedy, and I had learned to prepare for all outcomes; I mean, anything could happen. So many things that perhaps if I thought of them all I would be more ready. And if I were aware and ready for this possiblity, I would never appear naive and unprepared, and they would be less likely to happen. Right?
There was one time, shortly before I was diagnosed with breast cancer, where I foolishly went up on the wire without a net. I thought of it often as I went through treatment, wondering how I could have been so reckless. Coming off of a difficult time, we were enjoying a particularly joyful one, and I had done the unthinkable. Against my better judgement, I had dared to let it seep into my bones; I had even been so foolish as to say it out loud: “We’re living the dream, baby!” I certainly wasn’t worried about turning forty, or that first mammogram coming up. And we all know how that turned out.
Author and vulnerability expert Brene Brown calls joy our “most terrifying emotion” and her research into wholehearted living has revealed that this “foreboding joy” is universal. “How many of you have ever stood over your child while they’re sleeping and thought, ‘Oh my God, I love you’—and then pictured something horrific happening?” she asks. Turns out, we all do this—OK, a lot of us do this—let this dread, this foreboding joy take over in our most tender and joyful moments. Brown has found that it becomes an armor we put on to ensure our survival, to minimize our vulnerability.
We survivors are fortunate to have gotten this far, but not before being ambushed by a diagnosis and body-slammed by its treatment. Along the way, we have often have lost our breasts, our hair, the luxury of careless living. We have paid heavy prices to survive. We have faced difficulty unprepared, and we have rehearsed so that we’ll be more ready next time. We have told people that the cancer could come back, we have secretly prepared for the worst, we have hedged our bets. We have proved our courage and endured vulnerability. It is only natural that we would want to keep our guard up as we arrive at survivorship.
We try to find a “new normal,” which is a nice illiteration and sounds like an inocuous and worthwhile missive, but is really a heartbreakingly difficult journey. What is the point of surviving, if not to experience joy? Cancer is a thief; it has already taken so much. Should it be allowed to take a piece of the joyful days now and ahead, hard-earned as they are? Survivorship is a pie-eating contest where the prize is more pie; it demands the courage we cultivated in the oncologist’s office, the chemo room, the car. Perhaps by learning to live peacefully with the painful realities of vulnerability, fear, and uncertainty, we finally outsmart cancer and we win the joy.
Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.” -Brene Brown
I’m off the wire now, learning a new way of being. (Surely one of the Wallendas is a butcher, or a pharmacist?) I’m summoning courage to lean into joy this holiday season and beyond. Life is good. It remains uncertain, but in this moment, it is good, and the present is the present.
Wishing you joy in this moment, and in many moments to come.