Life was imploding and I was stuck right in the middle of it. I could feel it caving down around me. My relationship with my long-term, live-in boyfriend had ended, I had just moved into my own apartment, I was living in a relatively new city, the heat of summer had arrived, heavy and suffocating, and that morning, I had stubbed my toe. Things were looking, if any direction, down, and I was late for work.
During that summer, I could invariably rely on getting a pre-work phone call from my “support crew”: a group of best friends and my parents, brother, and cousin. Each morning, like clockwork, around the time I stepped out of my new shower, the phone would ring. I’d get ready with company, their voice emanating out of the speakerphone and chasing away the too-still silence that comes with living alone for the first time.
On that particular day, it was my father who phoned. “I’m late!” I announced, as I picked up the phone. “And I stubbed my toe already!” I griped. “Well, good morning!” he responded. “How’d you sleep?” “Terribly,” I admitted. Sleep was hard in those days. As you might imagine, the conversation continued from there. What was good? Nothing. What was bad? Everything. It was the general theme of that morning, I figured, so why couch it in niceties.
My dad listened to me grumble as I got dressed, locked up the apartment, walked down two flights of stairs, and made my way along the cobblestone streets toward my office. Finally, he stopped me, mid-sentence.
“Jessica,” he said, “I’m almost at the site.” He is an architect in Manhattan and was on his way to a job in SoHo. I could picture him sitting in his car, on Broome Street, waiting at the light.
“But before I go, I have to say, enough is enough. Things are not so bad.” He took my silence for the disagreement that it was. “Things are not so bad, Jessica,” he repeated. “You are no longer in what ended up being the wrong relationship. You were able to find a terrific new apartment in less than two weeks. It is in a safe, beautiful, historic neighborhood. You live next to the water – and above a coffee shop with the best iced coffee on earth. You have a job that you love and that you can walk to, colleagues and friends who support and care for you, a family who adores you, and a summer filled with exciting travel is about to start. Things sound beautiful to me, Jess.”
This time my silence was one of stunned agreement. I had been teaching Positive Psychology for six years by this point, but I had gotten so mired in my own sadness, so frustrated by my own way of viewing my situation, that I had been unable to lift my head up to see what was really around me. Things were indeed beautiful. I was emotionally, physically, and financially stable. I was surrounded by love. And even if I had stubbed my toe, it was June and I could wear flipflops.
“You’re right, Dad,” I admitted. “Thank you.”
“Jessica,” he said. “Go with beauty, not disaster.”
And then, he told me that he had arrived at the job site, would call later, and the line went dead.
Since that day, whenever things have seemed terrible or even just slightly irksome, I hear my father’s voice in my head. “Go with beauty, not disaster.”
How much lovelier life would be, if only we remembered this suggestion, if only we kept it in mind when things seem wholly disastrous. And often, they do. We experience breakups, and illness, and unfair office politics. We encounter mean people and bad drivers, polar vortexes and destructive hurricanes. We have setbacks. We stub our toes.
It is not always easy to find a silver lining, sometimes because there are no actual clouds to be found. Or because the sky is so dark that we cannot find the edges of our despair. But always, there is beauty.
Beauty can be found in the powerful sounds of thunder or the sky lighting up from electric flashes of lightning. It can be found deep in the sorrow that pours forth, allowing us to funnel our feelings into art, music, poetry. Beauty is a friend calling to make sure you have company as you towel-dry your hair. It is a cobblestone street, a birdsong, a cheerfully-painted front door. Beauty is having the things that we so often take for granted – food, shelter, safety, autonomy, love. And it is gratitude, true gratitude, for those things and more. It is a puppy napping, a new notebook waiting to be filled, a well-made espresso, a gorgeous high heel, an opportunity, a possibility, a realization.
Beauty is found in the pregnant pause before a rainstorm, as the sky takes one more breath before the deluge. Beauty is found in the midst of the storm. As my mother reminds me, “flowers need the rain; be grateful for it.” And beauty is found as a storm passes and we look around to find that we are still here, still standing. That while things may be different, they are still ours to shape.
Beauty is construction. It is found in the demolition and the rebuilding. It is found in corners and on roofs. Beauty is what we make of it, there for the taking and the molding and the shaping.
To think that my dad tossed out what I think of as one of the most poetic encapsulations of a main tenet of Positive Psycholgy, my field of study, while wearing jeans and construction boots and sitting in downtown Manhattan traffic on a weekday morning, amazes me. More amusing, perhaps, is the fact that he not only forgot that he ever said it, but that his forgotten quote impressed him quite a bit when I shared it with him this week.
“I named my blog after something you said,” I chirped cheerfully into the phone yesterday. “Something I said?!” he asked. “Yep, you,” I replied, and I told him the story, just as it had happened.
This time we were both silent.
“I said that?” he asked again.
“Well, it’s true.”
And then he had to head off to work, to make a house and a day beautiful.