Allowing space for feelings

My California hospital assignment is coming to an end soon. I’ve received a second extension offer and I turned it down. Most of you don’t know this, but I’ve been feeling depressed, or just very low, for several weeks now. And it’s okay. I’m learning to accept this is where I am right now.

Some of you might be surprised and say, “Depressed? Why??” This is a common reaction I’ve gotten when I had previously mustered up some courage to mention it in conversation to people. “You’re not married, you don’t have kids, you don’t have a mortgage ... You get to travel and be on your own. You should be happy.” End of conversation. Cue my inner critic. Yeah, I should be happy. What’s wrong with me?

I feel vulnerable and a little uncomfortable sharing this today, but I hope it will help someone else out there feel less alone. Writing has also been a helpful avenue for me to sort out my thoughts and oftentimes arrive at some revelations. So I’ll just go with the flow of my process here.

We are well into the second week of the new calendar year now, so perhaps it’s a suitable time for contemplation ... Our society’s measurement of time is interesting. Time is relative, after all. But in order to communicate and function within a structured society, we must establish and adhere to some form of “standardization.” A clock. A calendar. We must measure time somehow.

Perhaps standardization of many things in our world is also a huge contribution to our downfall. Think about it: To establish what is “normal” or “average” for intelligence, for education, for financial income, for job performance, for quality of life, even for happiness and success ... What is happiness? What is success?

When I was a child, every year for my birthday (both my American and my Chinese/lunar calendar birthdays), I would make the same birthday wish with all my heart: I wish to be successful and happy. What did that look like for 12-year-old, first-generation American me? Straight As and a reputable college degree ... Being able to laugh and smile often with my family and friends ... The latter of which I wish I had given more focus, even now, at 28.

I know and believe now true success — true happiness — is to achieve inner peace; to allow myself to feel happiness and joy. The truth of the matter is some people in the world experience real peace and inner happiness without having much at all, so I’ve realized happiness is not tied to the material world, whether it’s having a fancy house or having strong academic performance.

Perhaps that knowledge was always deep within me, within all of us. But we have been socially/culturally/environmentally conditioned to think otherwise. But of course. How will consumerism-driven America profit if no one places value on those ideas of owning a house, buying a car, earning a college education, procreating? Perhaps that is why when we do earn that degree, land that 9-to-5 job, buy a huge house, get married just to get married, etcetera, we might end up feeling empty and unhappy inside.

You see, these concepts of “normal” and “standard” must be taken lightly. Every single body-brain is different. That is nature. It’s not cookie-cutter. So why must our world seek those differences and alienate one another versus celebrate the differences and look beyond them to find the things that truly connect us? Things that can truly bring happiness, like love and compassion? At the end of the day, doesn't everyone just want to be accepted and free to be who they are?

For generations and centuries, that pattern of seeking differences and alienation or prejudice has existed. People discriminate. People label. People rage actual wars over perceived differences. People learn to feel hatred against that which we fear, that which we do not know, that which is perceived as different.

That leads me to wonder perhaps it’s somewhat ingrained in human nature to seek out differences. But at the same time, don’t we have willpower? Don’t we have the conscious ability to choose what to do about the differences we perceive? Furthermore, given that every body-brain is different, doesn’t that mean everyone has a different perception, and therefore a different reality, from everyone else?

Along that same line of thought, we each have the ability to choose how we perceive happiness. I say perceive because I don’t think true happiness is something tangible or normative. Happiness is a state of mind. What makes one person feel happy can make another feel unhappy. In addition, what makes one person feel happy during a given moment can make the same person feel unhappy at a different moment. I’ve experienced both scenarios recently.

And to that effect, because happiness is something that varies from moment to moment, the teachings of our society that have conditioned us to believe happiness is something permanent, something to achieve, something to “check off” ... Well, those are lies. “Happily ever after” is not a thing. It’s not the truth. We’ve been trained (brainwashed?) to think in a linear pattern. “If you achieve this, then you will reap this so-called reward.” “If you get or buy this thing, then you will be happy!”

It’s all garbage. So why do we collectively buy into all of that?

I’m starting to wonder now maybe the “if, then” method is only effective for things such as instant gratification and those fleeting moments of joy, thanks to dopamine, the neurotransmitter within us that’s responsible for reward-driven behavior. But is this how we find true happiness? No. And along those lines, perhaps happiness is not something we “find” — not something we simply arrive at one day and say “Mission accomplished!” No. It is something we must consciously maintain. Maybe it becomes less effortful over time, but it requires awareness and intention nonetheless.

An appropriate analogy may be a romantic relationship, or any relationship for that matter. A healthy relationship requires time and effort, and both partners must maintain balance with intention. Continually. Maybe it requires less effort over a period of time, but if you put forth no effort, no intention, then you will probably reach a point of apathy or frustration and the relationship becomes broken and fades.

Similarly, if we as a society chase after notions of happiness by looking for quick fixes and impulse buys, thinking they’re the answer to our problems, we only end up hurting ourselves and straying further from true happiness. And the corrupt, greedy people behind corporate America feed on those false ideas of happiness.

But alas, who am I to say I know anything about happiness and healthy relationships? I’ve been in three serious relationships in my life so far, all during my 20s, and failed at all three of them, even with my previous travel companion who has been mentioned on this blog.

I’ve learned something important about myself each time, though. It sure is a difficult road at times. They say failure is the greatest teacher. I’ve also read about the idea that people we connect with throughout life serve as mirrors, as reflections, to who we are within. I’ve come to realize I still have so much to learn to love and accept about myself, and how can one genuinely love and accept another person without first doing the work within?

I am reminded that my emotions and reactions at any given time don’t define who I am. I didn’t allow myself to be happy — maybe it comes from this deep-rooted sense of unworthiness in me. I’ve seen for myself how patterns repeat in different relationships and interactions with people until we finally heal and learn the hard lesson that was intended.

As I am writing this, I’m reminded to be kind and gentle to myself. I see the connections now and why certain things had to happen the way they did. Yet, I feel so sad. We all have our own codes of being and absolutely cannot control others’ behaviors and actions. I know my work now is to forgive and move on. To forgive another person is to forgive myself because if I hold onto that negativity and pain, I’m only hurting myself.

On another note, I finally watched The Last Jedi movie this week. It was fun to see the Star Wars scenes filmed in Dubrovnik, Croatia, where I had spontaneously traveled to a few months ago during my backpacking trip in Europe — at the beginning of which I had only intended to explore Prague, Salzburg, Vienna, and Budapest.

Most of all, the film brought about perplexing musings within me regarding this concept of balance. The forces of nature contain balance when we look at the big picture — balance of warmth and cold, peace and violence, noise and silence, darkness and light. By definition, balance requires both, opposite elements. Maybe the existence of both good and evil is natural and that in itself is balance?

Similar to my discussion of happiness being more than a destination point or an item to check off a list, maybe our ultimate goal is to keep fighting the good fight, to keep doing our best, perpetually — because maybe the opposite end of the spectrum will always be there, by nature. Maybe every human being has the capacity to become good or evil, kind or mean. Maybe nature requires both elements. But how do we maintain peace and positivity when there is so much war and violence present in the world? How can both of these exist in balance? It doesn’t sound like harmony to me.

As I prepare for my next relocation and the next step on my journey to find my balance, I realize I’m not feeling strong and happy enough to help others wholeheartedly, and so I will be taking a break from working in the American healthcare industry.

I’m still searching for where I belong in the world, but perhaps I need to find it within me first. Humans aren’t meant to be alone; we are social animals. Maybe it became that way for survival — strength in numbers and collective thinking and problem solving and such. I’ve thought about running away into the mountains, thanks to the sometimes extreme introvert within me. It seems like an annual inclination for as long as I can remember, which helps me realize there is something within me I must resolve. It’s time to face my fears and arrive at my truth. So I won’t run away this time. I will work on rebuilding my creative energy this new year. (Expect to see new artwork from me!)

I hope to bring you good news and updates of resuming my travels the next time I write. Until then, may the new year bring you inner peace, a clean canvas, and your own equilibrium. Namaste.

With love,