is it permissible to be happy when you should be sad?

I saw this photo on facebook.

Dad kids bath

It is incredible. It’s just utterly wonderful, painful, fun-filled, death-reeking, loving, hate-filled and… awe-inspiring. How can one picture be all those things? Yet it is the combination that makes it so poignant. So, heart-renderingly beautiful.

I could present you with this photo and write a post that says:

  • Be grateful
  • If he can be a fun parent, then so can you
  • And you thought you had problems…

…Or words to that effect. I appreciate the value of those posts that help us stop short the next time we decide to have a tantrum about a parking ticket (that we deserved because we did park in a disabled bay after all, even if it was for five seconds to go and pick up a crappy mobile phone we’d left behind that was worth all of ten pounds and certainly not worth the £25 parking fine. This happened to a friend… Not me, oh no).

But I don’t want to. Here’s why: I find myself the least motivated by words that tell me I should be more like this. So, instead of telling you what this photo tells us we should do better, I want to tell you what it permits us to do. As I said previously, I get the purpose of those posts and with a gracious tone they can be effective and impactive in a positive way. But sometimes, they remind me of the use of the phrase “first-world problem”, which I really, really dislike. My reasons are three-fold:

  1. It is condescending. For example, if your first-world-problem is that you’ve lost your gadget, you could be implying an assumption that someone who lives in a third-world nation has never and will never own a gadget also. When I went to a slum village in South Africa, I was surprised by the many electrical items that many of the families had. Microwaves, TV’s, full-kitchen’s, yet they didn’t have electricity or running water. These items were clearly very well cared for and valued, so I think they would understand the disappointment of losing one or having it stolen. Losing something of value is an all-world problem.
  2. It undermines or writes-off the importance of our very real problems. The situation you are in is the world you live in and a problem to you is allowed to be a problem. Someone else might wish they had that same problem to deal with, perhaps. But actually, if they were living your exact life they’d be seeing it as a problem too. A well-known book full of useful knowledge talks about the poor being blessed. A famous rap song (also a great source of wisdom!?) says, “mo money, mo problems”. It’s a tad naive to assume that wealth and privilege is the answer to all our woes in life and I think that tutting and laughing at ourselves for being upset over things of value is somewhat ungrateful.
  3. It sends the message that a problem you can’t relate to, isn’t in fact, a valid problem. It’s that empathy thing again. If your pool boy didn’t show up for the third day running, meaning you couldn’t use your pool yet again, I’m sure I could imagine why that’s annoying and be empathetic. And I wouldn’t criticise you about your moaning due to my own jealousy… No way…

I get the well-meaning feeling that is often behind the phrase. We have so much. And can moan SO MUCH. But you can still be gutted about something and also be grateful that you live the life you do. It’s more how you handle it that’s important, rather than just pretending the problem is not valid to the rest of the world. I think it can also stem from a perception that perhaps to enjoy is to show disrespect or irreverence for other people’s pain. I hope no one would look at the above photo and think it was inappropriate, but a more relatable example might be not speaking of your wonderful Dad on father’s day, because I lost mine. Not enjoying your loved ones or your life because other people are suffering doesn’t change anything. If you want to help, enjoy your life, then go and donate clothes or volunteer to pack donations up that are going to refugee camps in France.

Enjoy your Dad, tell me (with sensitivity) about the great things he does that reminds me of the good memories I have of mine. Then stop, listen, and pass me tissues as I cry about how much I miss him.

So, what does this photo permit you to do…

It permits you to experience joy that’s always there to be found.

To cry, and then laugh as you dry your eyes.

To be infuriated with your child and then weep tears of love approximately three minutes later, because parenting can be both wonderful and utterly soul-destroying at times.

To laugh and be silly on the anniversary of a loved one’s passing.

To be thankful for the one you have, that your friend just lost. To speak about them and not pretend they don’t exist – because actually, misery doesn’t love company.

To do and enjoy, to taste and savour, when they cannot. 

To make love with your partner when you’re supposed to be sad and therefore not interested in such shenanigans (you definitely should by the way).

To expect the good, along with the bad.

To share the deep pain of a gaping wound, and then tell a joke. 

To love life, and to hate it. 

Or… To fill a bath and laugh as you watch your kids smile, splash and enjoy, against a literal backdrop of devastation and loss.

It’s ok to laugh and also cry. To be happy amidst sadness.

It’s how we survive it.




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