How To Be Happy When Your World Is Falling Apart
I feel so much compassion for us all, facing this global challenge that hits right at our most sensitive spots.
This pandemic has exposed a hard truth to us and delivered it in an incredibly harsh way. It has made it unequivocally clear that we are, in fact, not in control. Our collective worst nightmare. We are not in control of the world, we never really were, and all of the ways we tried to pretend we were have been exposed as flimsy delusions that can be ripped away within a moment, without a thought or care for our opinion on the matter.
We want desperately to believe that we have control over the chaotic world, because otherwise, the world is just too damn scary, too uncertain, too random. This belief leads us to work so hard to create structures and identities that pull the wool over our own eyes, using external gratifications to soothe our existential fears.
In normal life, for the lucky people of the world (those who have not already been forced to confront this truth through sickness, subjugation, or other tragedies), it’s relatively easy, most of the time, to pretend that the world is in your control. You can delude yourself in various ways, accumulating new methods of control (achievements, possessions, titles, adventures, and so on) like they’re trophies. And when you are forced to confront the truth, through grief and loss, it doesn’t usually impact your entire existence or last forever, so you eventually can move past it and return to trophy-collecting.
The way to find happiness — both now, and prior to this moment, for the world has been and always will be this way — is to view everything in our life as something that has been lent to us, something that could be requested to be returned to the original owner at any time. The beautiful sunset, the loving friend, the interesting job, the fun vacation, the family, the house: everything in your life that doesn’t come from within is something that you have borrowed. Sometimes, the world will come knocking and ask for it back. And tragically, you don’t get to say no.
This mindset is opposite to what has been drilled into us by our society: that everything in our lives is something we have earned, that belongs to us permanently, and that reflects our status, identity, and worth as a human being. It’s those with this mindset who are most at risk when the world comes requesting the loan, for they have constructed an identity that is so precariously built on what’s next to them and not within them, that the whole thing can easily come crashing down.
Some of us try to control the world through being productive. Some of us try to do it through manufacturing conflict. Some of us try to control others. Some of us try to do it by fixing the past through rumination or controlling the future with anxiety. Some of us try to hide away so we can’t get hurt, and some of us run at the hurt so we can control its impact. Some of us try to be perfect. Some of us choose to be victims. Most of us try all of these things! (You can see your tendency by looking at what you’re stressing the most about right now: in America, being productive is clearly the drug of choice, based on the articles I see about how this is the perfect time to write your best-selling novel and finally get into shape.)
Here’s what my attempt to control the world looked like:
In the beginning of the pandemic, I thought a lot about how incredibly unfair everything was. I thought about how dearly I would like to tell people, “Please shut up and stop complaining, because I’ve been living like this for two years.” I wanted to yell at everyone who was talking about how incredibly horrible and terrible this way of living was, and tell them they were denigrating the millions of sick people who live this way all the time and have no idea if they’ll ever be free of it. I thought about how satisfied I was that people would now have some point of reference about what it is like to be Alex, stuck inside for two years, and also how preemptively annoyed I was that people would probably compare their two months in lockdown to his.
None of this was evolved or compassionate thinking. Nor is it something I’m proud of sharing. But this is what the attempt to control the world looks like: I was desperately struggling to hold on to this illusion, trying to deny the truth that the world is not in my control, and that made me self-centered, selfish, and disconnected. And, in my desperate attempt to ignore this truth, I used it as an excuse to victimize myself, which I did in so many interesting ways.
I thought about how the ONLY (always, always capitalized like this in my head) pleasure in my life, walking my dog to go get a coffee, had disappeared. I thought about how UNFAIR (also capitalized) it was that I couldn’t go outside because I live with a very sick person and it was too risky. I was ENRAGED (emotional capitalization) that my already never-ending to-do list had just expanded to include so many new and annoying tasks, like wiping down every item that came into our house.
Then one day, I woke up, and something clicked: look at me, trying desperately to control the world, forgetting the truth, forgetting what I’ve already learned through Alex’s illness. And look at what that desperation to control does to me. And look at how far it takes me away from my goals of helping others and being happy.
IT’S NATURAL TO WANT TO CONTROL THE WORLD
Forgetting this truth is the human condition, because we want to be in control. It’s a natural impulse deep inside of us, something we’ve had since we were babies, pulling ourselves up on tables and crawling towards what we want. It’s natural, it’s nothing to be ashamed of, and it’s something that we have to accept. By accepting it, we can begin to work with it.
I think that this is part of our nature is so central to many of our struggles right now. I’m in awe of all of you who are navigating this moment, thrown into a boiling pot of water with no warning. And I feel so much compassion for us all, facing this global challenge that hits right at our most sensitive spots.
I think the most important (and bravest) thing we can all do right now is to express these new vulnerabilities, putting our hands on our hearts and saying to ourselves, “This is really hard. This is how I’m trying to cope with the challenge. I see what I’m trying to do, and I accept and love myself for my humanness.”
It’s okay to not feel at all okay right now. Denying that truth just puts up a shell around us, which at the end of the day, is yet another way to try to control the world. It also makes us small and disconnects us from the rest of humanity, limiting our ability to show up for those who really need our help right now.
We are all so much more fragile than we admit and so much stronger than we believe. We are all pretending to be okay, even though saying that we aren’t okay will be the act that does make us okay. We are all afraid of the overwhelming, vast chaos of the world and trying to control it because we think it will bring us happiness, but it is letting go of that need to control the world that will actually make us happy.
HOW TO COPE
The secret to being happy in an uncontrollable world is to let go of what you can’t control and to focus your energy on what you can control. That is why cultivating happiness from within is the way to live a truly joyful life and that is why focusing on helping others is the way to impact the world around you.
We can direct our desire for control towards productive pathways, towards what we can impact: our selves, our thoughts, and our actions. (And if you’re like me, some days, you will find this impossible. And that’s okay. You can try again tomorrow. You can keep trying. Every moment has the seed of a new beginning.)
This global experience is not in our control. But waking up and saying, “What can I do, in this moment?” is.
When I remember this, when I shift my attention, when I feel the truth of it in my bones, I feel true happiness. And I am reminded of how lucky we are to live in this world where so many people are, every day, choosing to be good to each other, and to be good to themselves. Keep going. We can do this. I believe in us!