I like the winter. I’ve lived in Ohio for most of my life, and you’re probably rolling your eyes at how anyone can enjoy this icy snowpocalypse hellscape when it literally hurts to breathe outside. Winter has always signified promise for me. It is a giddy overture to all good things. It’s a dormant season where everything teams beneath the surface. There is good coming. Even in subzero weather, I can feel it.
I don’t believe in good vibes only. I think it’s stupid. Life isn’t always beautiful. It is sometimes weird, painful, gory, relentless. We aren’t all beautiful. There are days when my body is just a body and not this temple insta-bloggers want me to believe that it is. I am not grateful for the things I’ve endured, and I don’t believe that all things happen for a reason. I am not happy all the time, nor do I always feel like I’m living my best life.
I’m not saying be unhappy. I’m urging you to go for richer than that. I’m challenging you (and me) to experience all of the feelings– to not numb yourself to the ones that hurt to feel. Fulfillment guides us through the hard feelings. There is meaning and significance in all the shitty times, even if the gift turns out to be understanding the might of our own mettle.
The fixation on happy makes us miserable. It’s this self-serving ideology of what will suit us most. It’s good to be selfish to a certain extent. We need to prioritize ourselves to keep ourselves alive. But that’s a survival tactic. Happy is fleeting, and yet, it always finds us. Happiness is instant gratification, the rush of good things. The search of happiness often leads to highs and lows because we are always seeking the thing that makes us feel good– whether or not it is actually good for us. Fulfillment is a thriving tactic, which is to say that it requires a different approach. Fulfillment is about meaning, about stability. Fulfillment is understanding that gold exists with the mud, and you still dig for the gold anyway. Fulfillment demands we understand our own needs and baggage and motives. There’s a ton of personal work required of fulfillment.
We dodge everything that leads to fulfillment because it is often messy and uncertain. It is unglamorous. We hide in codependent relationships that we call love but are more an avoidance of loneliness than anything else. We muddle through comfortable routines. We make the choices that are easiest to say to other people. We pick people who reinforce what we think our lives should look like, as opposed to who is actually supportive and good for our mental health. We couch our need for belonging in social media likes and follows. We use other people as distractions. This is a house of cards. It is a fabrege egg. It is Chinese food. We are always fed and never nourished.
Fulfillment feels different to everyone. There is no tidy way to find it. It lurks in faith, work, art, meditation, in the ritual of a Sunday morning crossword puzzle or the wholesome satisfaction of creation. Fulfillment can be a hobby. Not all of the important work we do will be the work we get paid for. Fulfillment changes because we change, and what once brought us joy no longer serves us. But, in my short adulthood, I know a lot of successful people and few people who are fulfilled. I know people who followed the tried and true recipe for a good life, but don’t like its taste. I’m not saying you don’t have to pay your bills. Money matters. Poverty sucks, and most people in that space don’t get to contemplate fulfillment because they are just trying to stay alive. I am saying that the equation we were provided to live a great life (College Degree + Marriage + Car +House + Kid(2.5) = Happy Life) might not be enough.
Winter is a worthwhile season. Bursts of stinging air, falling on ice, burrowing into our houses. Winter is coming whether we want it or not. The bad times are coming whether we want them or not. The seasons of the spirit are equally unmutable. There’s no way to shield ourselves from the burden of becoming without some consequence. I’ve tried. I’ve binged and dated and spent and napped and cut and starved my way through so many things, but they all awaited me. The unpleasant emotions outlasted my procrastination. And there was no prize at the end of processing all those crappy feelings. My small solace arrived when the pain returned again, and I knew what to do with it. But unlike every movie, no reward– whether a trip, a school admission, a lover, etc– found me in the wake of my suffering.
You don’t get a cookie for doing the emotion labor required for a wholehearted life, but you do make the cookies. You make the cookie by being more than a husk of a person. You make the cookie when you realize what you are capable of enduring and that, sometimes, you get to walk away. You make the cookie with agency and emotional first aid. You make the cookie, when, after so many winters, it thaws, and spring arrives at last.