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30 April 2020


Written by
Jennifer Garvey Berger

I am noticing a new side effect of this Covid world in myself and in the people I work with. I hear it when people are feeling well-rested and grateful about being with their families after years of too much time travelling and working long hours. “I feel guilty about being happy right now, because so many are sad,” they tell me. I hear it when people are feeling isolated and exhausted and unhappy about how quickly the life they loved has lost pieces that made it shine. “I feel guilty about being sad right now because there are so many others who are so much worse off.” I hear it from people who are feeling afraid of the future because everything is changing so fast. “I feel guilty for giving into anxiety right now when so much in my life is still stable.” It is as if our own emotions aren’t allowed to be ours right now—they need to be compared to others, measured for appropriateness, and held out to public approval.

I feel this too, each time I try to write a blog that processes why this time is hard for me. Who am I to complain when I am still able to pay my monthly bills, still able to shelter and feed my family? What is my pain or dislocation in the face of those who have had death and destruction tear through their worlds? I feel it when Aria battles with her lead in the park and ends up tangled and triumphant in her dubious victory, with me doubled over in laughter alongside her. Who am I to laugh when so many are in grief? What message might it send to someone else in the park who is mourning a dying parent or afraid of a violent situation at home?

And yet it is perhaps the worst possible time for us to be ashamed of our own emotions—whatever they are. With the quieting of the cars and the planes and the moving grind, we might be busy in our homes or we might be bored in our homes, but we will certainly be feeling in our homes. People talk about the way they hear birds sing in formerly busy city streets, but it is also true that people are hearing their own emotions sing out—sometimes shriek out—when they might once have been drowned out by the noise of the world, might have been lost alongside the hum of assumed predictability we used to have as white noise as we went through our busy days.

Birdsong is generally taken as a gift, but these emotions are often taken as a burden. Whatever they might be, they seem somehow out of tune with what we should be feeling right now. I know that for me, that sense of burden can leave me feeling more and more muted, each layer of “I should” shielding me not only from those around me but also from myself. I can find myself silent and encased, my feelings tried and condemned by the jury of critics in my head.

I think there’s enough isolation right now. Instead of feeling wrong or bad about our emotions, what if we just agreed that all the emotions on the spectrum were allowable responses to the world we’re in right now. There are obviously ways of acting that aren’t allowable, but any emotion you and I might happen to feel, no matter how in or out of sync it is with the rest of the world, that’s a legitimate emotion. What if we used this time to notice the shades and colours of these emotions, the way they braid together and create something new, the way they move across our internal system at the speed of the clouds chasing each other across the sky?

Obviously, there’s a paradox here.  I’m telling us that we shouldn’t feel bad about any of our emotions and then I’m saying we should stop one of those emotions: guilt about the way we feel. But this time is filled with paradox, right? We swim in a sea of loss and gain, of hope and fear. I’m just wanting us to notice that sea and feel all the currents of it. At another confusing time, Carl Jung said, “I am astonished, disappointed, pleased with myself. I am distressed, depressed, rapturous. I am all these things at once and cannot add up the sum.” Now is not the time for adding up our emotions as though they were in a balance sheet and could be carefully slipped into their little boxes and compared across the line with others. Now is the time to listen to the birds sing and to our own emotions sing and to find the beauty in each.

One thought on “Listen”

  1. Beautifully said. no comparing our suffering. How can we banish SHOULD in this mess? Thank you for all of it.

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