We were driving through the twisty mountain roads of North Carolina headed to a mutual friend’s wedding. We’d known each other for years…more accurately we’d known of each other for years. We had worked in the same small summer camp, but our summer social lives didn’t intersect. We knew each other from a distance. She turned to me on that ride that day and said, “So what really happened? Your life looked perfect on Facebook. You were one of those shiny, happy, people I hated.”
This friend—this arbiter of the truest truth—called my bluff. And she was right. I, like most everyone else, presented my shiny, happy life through social media. There were ski trips in the Swiss Alps and bike rides through Tuscany and gelato by the lake and baguettes by the Eiffel Tower and Nepalese Tea houses and Bavarian forests and castles and waffles and chocolate and my handsome partner and I enjoying it all. Only I wasn’t. Well I was some of the time. But often I was crying. In my bedroom. In a bush outside my classroom. Over a jammed photocopier. On my handsome partner’s shoulder.
I knew my life was shiny and happy in all ways, except for one significant way: that it wasn’t. At least not for me. At least not in that moment of my life. And the guilt I felt about that reality was the cherry on top of the misery sundae.
Lest I paint an untrue picture again, let me be clear: there were many genuine shiny, happy moments. My partner was as good hearted as he was good looking. There was solace and love and deep friendships and marvel at the beauty of the world. But despite all that was good, I fell apart. I didn’t want to. But I couldn’t not.
In the years since my most profound unraveling, I’ve re-connected with the core of me that somehow got lost along the way. And that gift is incredible, and also soaked in blood. There was no shiny, happy path back to my core…just a gnashing of teeth, a ripping, a clawing, a gasping, a surviving, and eventually a glimmer of hope, that grew brighter and brighter.
Birth is messy (or so I’ve heard). Re-birth, it turns out, is messy too. Along the way I marinated my brain and heart in the wisdom of the wise, and came out believing in these truths: that shiny and dark are two sides of the same coin and life will have both if you live with eyes and heart open; that joy and sadness can be bedfellows; that certainty is an illusion; that conflicting truths are perennial; that the heart’s capacity to love can grow infinitely, but that that growth is always accompanied with pain; and that progress is a widening circle, not a line.
I feel like I have (to embrace the cliche and to quote my favorite Indigo Girls song) “been to the doctor, been to the mountain, looked to the children, and drank from the fountain…” and still, still, STILL…after it all…I find myself from time to time in the dark rabbit hole of social media looking at other people’s lives thinking…”They are so shiny and happy…they bypassed all the bad stuff and just got all the goodies.” And even sometimes think—looking back at my own photos of sunsets on the cliffs of Capri and hiking along the Amalfi Coast— “I had all the goodies…didn’t I?” Amnesia to the reality of my own existence mere years ago. And a blind spot to the truth I know: that nobody actually gets just the goodies.
I had a student two years ago tell me I couldn’t possibly understand her life, because my life was perfect. It broke my heart. Because there are lines of professionalism that I could not fully cross to tell her that my heart had been broken into a million pieces and was still fusing back together, and that it would break again and again in the process towards healing, and that this first breakdown of her young life, would be followed by more—but that joy would be there too. So I told her all that as best I could when the rulebook dictates that you can’t speak openly.
And still. I post my shiny, happy pictures. Like most people. But there are a few people (like my friend from that twisty car ride, who is now a dear friend, and still a staunch believer in sharing the truest truths) who share the good, the bad, and the ugly in equal measure. I can write it, but I can’t yet pair it with a photo essay. Perhaps, someday I will. For now, this post is the grain of salt that belongs on the side of each of my photos.
In this holiday season of merry and bright, and in this social media dawn of shiny and happy, it is worth remembering that that dark and sad are always nearby. That they too have a place at the table and should be welcomed more graciously into the fold.