We just returned from 12 days in Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina, driving through very beautiful, diverse, and remote landscapes: mountains, coastlines, fertile valleys, rolling hills.
Every day, as I posted one or two photos to our More to Explore Travel Instagram, I messed around with the filters that Instagram offers.
As I fiddled with the filters day after day, I began to realize that Instagram filters are a useful metaphor for my emotional state right now.
Usually, my emotional state when we travel looks like this: light, bright, full of sunshine and happiness.
This time, things were a little more like this.
No matter how wonderful all the things were (and they were wonderful), it was all just a little (some days, a lot) more subdued than usual.
And that’s because, while this beautiful rainbow-and-antiquity scene is playing out in front of me, I also have within me this other equally true, and more emotionally weighty, reality.
And this is what I’m doing all the time: carrying these two realities.
The beauty of life and the trauma of death.
I told my sister that I feel like every emotion, every experience, from here on out will always have this additional modulation.
We can’t go back to “pure happiness” or “pure wonder” or “pure gratitude” because of the horror and terror and grief that lives in us alongside all the loveliness.
Life is both.
The thing is, the dark things have always existed in the world. We were just privileged enough to ignore them most of the time.
The lightning struck other houses, not ours.
We were sorry when it did, but it wasn’t truly our pain.
Now the pain is truly ours.
Just before we left on our trip, I found some notes I took last summer from a lecture by Buddhist teacher angel Kyodo williams.
“When I allow my heart to be broken open, the pain of the world comes in too. That becomes an opening to connection and to Love. We show up for pain, and we experience in our own bodies connection to the world.”
(She also said that part of the impoverishment of the construct of whiteness is that we white people don’t feel our own bodies, because if we feel ourselves, then we’ll feel others as well. I think she’s saying that if we want to end racism, we white people have to start feeling our pain so we can connect to the pain of the people we’ve oppressed. Topic for another day, my friends. Go ahead and think about it as much as you want in the meantime.)
And then she said this.
The way to keep on growing through pain is two-fold: our “learned ability to suffer” and our capacity to hold the opposites.
That makes an awful lot of sense to me right now, and it reminds me of something I wrote down years ago, out of Wendell Berry’s masterwork, Jayber Crow.
“The sunlight now lay over the valley perfectly still. I went over to the graveyard beside the church and found them under the old cedars... The grief that came to me then was nothing like the grief I had felt for myself alone... This grief had something in it of generosity, some nearness to joy. In a strange way it added to me what I had lost. I saw that, for me, this country would always be populated with presences and absences, presences of absences, the living and the dead. The world as it is would always be a reminder of the world that was, and of the world that is to come.”
I think the ability to suffer comes only through the experience of suffering.
We can have good (or truly bad) ideas about suffering ahead of time, but it’s only in the experience that we gain the actual ability to suffer.
It’s like reading a lot of articles about weight-lifting. It’s good to know the theory, but you have to actually lift the weights at some point.
On Day 6 of our trip, exactly halfway, we visited Plitvice Lakes National Park in Croatia.
As far as I’m concerned, Plitvice Lakes is one of the great natural wonders of the world: sixteen crystal-clear sapphire-blue lakes with hundreds of waterfalls connecting the lakes to each other.
I don’t know when I will be immersed in such a beautiful landscape ever again.
And yet, the filter was there.
I didn’t have the ecstatic experience I would normally have in a place like this.
That afternoon, we drove down to the city of Split on the coast and went on a sunset cruise in the harbor.
There was live music, and as the band started playing, the lead singer welcomed everyone aboard by inviting us to enjoy the boat, enjoy the food and drinks, and, she said, “Enjoy this beautiful light.”
And they started singing Stevie Wonder’s You Are the Sunshine of My Life.
And I just lost it.
For two hours.
I sat and cried in one of the most beautiful sunsets I’ve ever seen.
It just went on and on and on, being beautiful.
And I just went on and on and on, crying.
Because this is how we learn to hold the opposites: by holding them.
Maybe things will always be filtered through a certain lens from now on.
Maybe sometimes the tears will wash it all clean and we’ll get glimpses of that pure, clean beauty.
Maybe the tears will even amplify the beauty sometimes.
Some days it’s going to all be shades of gray, too, I’m pretty sure.
But this is life as it comes to us.
We carry what is.
And Love carries us all.