Fragile Joy

My mom’s second husband, my first stepdad (yeah, the bad one), was a very talented artist. He was a sculptor whose work centered on hyper realistic, historically accurate depictions of the Old West. He did sculptures like this:

As part of his work, he did a lot of research for each piece, most of which took a year or so to complete and then sold for tens of thousands of dollars a copy. He had an extensive library of the history and culture of the American West, the indigenous people of the plains, and America’s westward expansion.

He also had a lot of antique guns.

One of his prized possessions was an 1861 Navy Colt revolver. This was one of the primary handguns used in the Civil War and was exported to the West (especially Texas) shortly after the war. It was carried by lawmen and outlaws. One a few occasions he would let me move it to clean or even just to hold it. I had to be extremely careful to not damage it.

The weapon was so heavy and so substantial – literally and metaphorically. It was a steel weapon designed for the specific purpose of taking human life. Even at 13 I couldn’t hold it with one hand. And yet, even as a child, I was struck by how fragile it was. My stepdad would hover over me any time I handled it, full of fear that one drop would turn what had once been a fearsome bringer of death into nothing more but random scattered and bent steel.

How could something so strong be so easily broken?

There are so many things that once felt strong that feel equally fragile right now. Things that feel heavy in our hands but are one drop away from breaking into dozens of bent pieces. Our planet, our democracy, even our basic human decency, things that once felt like permanent and durable part of life – things that could not be destroyed – now teeter against a precipice dug by our own human hubris.

This happens closer to home too.

7 or 8 weeks ago, I knew Barb was stressed out. I knew that she had spent a lot of time working and not enough time taking care of herself. And. I also had no idea that her body was about to break down suddenly, seriously, and rapidly. I had no idea that nearly 2 months later she would be using a walker to get around and working with therapists to re-learn how to use her body and voice. I had taken for granted that she would always be there, and always be healthy.

What seems stable can be very fragile. And it seems to happen all at once.

Then what?

There are a few things that children of narcissists have in common. We all struggle with issues of identity and safety. We all struggle in some way with self-confidence. One of the big ones is that we all struggle to find joy – to truly embrace and enjoy the good things that happen to us.

What brings you joy? It seems like a simple question. But it is incredibly complicated if you were raised by a narcissist. I was never allowed to enjoy something for myself as a kid. I had to be focused on whether my *mom* was enjoying herself. I had to be constantly worried – even in good moments – that the mood might change, and I might not be safe. I focused on keeping her (and my artist stepdad) happy. I became very good at reading people and their moods, knowing when the people around me were okay. Because that is what kept me okay.

I didn’t know what made me happy. I never got to find out. One of the hard truths I have had to grapple with the last few years is that I still don’t know what makes me happy. I am surrounded by people who want nothing more than to give me what I want, and I can’t tell them what that is.

It’s like having a safe full of treasure and no combination.

I increasingly believe that there is a connection between fragility and joy.

I think that in order to feel joy – true joy – we have to be willing to embrace fragility. We have to recognize that we are surrounded by thin lines. That chaos looms inside and outside what we conceive of as our selves. We have to see that chaos, and know that nothing is promised to us by our current moment, in order to fully feel the joy that surrounds us. And that is hard.

It’s hard because it is scary to acknowledge how fragile things are. It makes us feel unsafe. And it is that fear that robs our joy.

Think about it this way. Have you ever watched your kids sleep? I think all parents do. There is something so angelic about watching your children sleep. They are quiet (a rarity in our house). They are peaceful. You see their beauty. Their purity. There is a moment of pure parental bliss as you see the shallow rise and fall of their breath.

Then, inevitably, the fear comes in. You think about how fragile it all is. What happens if they get hurt? What happens if they get sick? What kind of world are we leaving them? What kind of community? Soon we aren’t seeing the gentle beauty anymore. We are just playing nightmare scenarios on a loop inside our head.

We allow the fragility of the world to overtake joy. And we do this again and again and again.

So how do we find joy despite fragility? How do we find joy in chaos? How do we find joy when we don’t know what it is or what it looks like?

The researcher and writer Brene Brown says that we “cannot know joy without embracing vulnerability.” We must not live in fear of what we could lose, she argues, but “soften into the moments (we) have.” I think that she is on to something here. She very frequently is.

One of the challenges I have taken on in the last several years is a commitment to live as openly and authentically as possible. To be as transparent and honest about my history and my struggles as I can be. I do this for two reasons. The first is because my secrets and lies nearly killed me. I do this to stay alive. The second reason is because I know what makes me miserable. All the bullshit I carried around. And maybe, just maybe, by being honest about the things I carry I can find my way to authentic participation in the joys (and sorrows) of the world around me.

If I am completely vulnerable, maybe I will at long last find my joy.

In order for this to work, I have to acknowledge that two things can be true at once. The world is a fragile place. Thin lines surround us and define us. And. The world is a beautiful place. And we can feel joy if only we are able to lean into the moment and not let our fear of fragility rob us of our bliss.

Joy may be fragile. But it’s there. It is always there. And maybe by embracing the fragility, we will find the joy.

Thanks for reading, y’all. I hope you have a great week.

Be well, and keep pounding the rock.