The faces of public sadness, common and hollow, surround you.
Unexpected, and ultimately devastating.
You suddenly realize you’re walking in the midst of a community of shadows, people wandering around semi-exhausted from their struggle to reconcile what they want with what they have and who they really are.
Some of you may have noticed that we’ve been quiet the last week or so. That’s because we had to take another little trip out of town to deal with a bit of business in Croatia.
We were in Zagreb — a pretty nice city by most standards, with some lovely architecture and scenery, good shopping, and amazing food. We had a productive few days, and actually had a bit of time left over to wander around. We’ve been there many times, so there was no chance of getting caught up in the whole tourist thing.
It didn’t take long before we started paying more attention to the people than to the scenery and the shops. We were stricken by the faces of public sadness all around us.
We’re pretty sure that the folks we saw weren’t aware of how sad they looked or how much of themselves they were revealing.
Obviously, we have no way of knowing exactly what they were thinking, or why they’re motivated to conduct their lives as they do.
But most of their faces seemed miserable.
Devoid of joy.
Ignorant of their surroundings and of others, with sadness or worry or depression or exhaustion written plainly on them for anyone to see.
Those few people we saw who actually seemed engaged with their surroundings or other people were often manic in their animation, as if trying to convince themselves of something nobody else could see or hear.
And it didn’t seem to matter whether we were in government offices or strolling around public squares. The outdoor coffee shops were full in mid-afternoon, in a place in which the economy is struggling; the salespeople in the shops had frozen smiles on their faces and were frantic in their determination to help you find whatever you wanted.
At least until you left their shops, and then they went blank, their shoulders slumping in frustration.
We realized that we were looking at a community in which the majority of people had lost the ability to live in the moment. Almost all of them were either trying to be on their way to anything or anywhere “better,” or were busy reconciling themselves to how much they hated whatever was going on right now.
They’d given up on the gratitude we should all feel, just for being alive.
They seemed to have chosen, as individuals and community members, to ignore the possibility of gut-deep changes — the sort of life-altering changes they wanted — because that would mean changing too much that was familiar and comforting in their way of life.
Even if clinging to the familiar meant they’d remain stuck right where they were, with no relief in sight.
Then we came to an even more terrifying realization.
We recognized the faces of public sadness easily in Zagreb. If you’re from North America or western Europe, you can’t avoid the sense of cultural “otherness” in a place where the language, politics and customs are so different from your own. That sensitizes you. You pay attention, in ways that you probably wouldn’t when you’re at home, on your own turf.
Then we came home, to our normal stomping grounds — and the faces of sadness, frustration, depression and desperation were still with us, still all around us.
Oh, there were differences, to be sure. We live in a place where there’s a lot of money floating around. The demographics are different. The social and political and economic issues are different. The cultural history and the languages are different (and to us, more familiar).
But we quickly realized that we’d been a bit blind to certain realities. The sadness and depression — and that key sense of preoccupation with problems at some other point on one’s personal timeline — were and are still evident in the familiar faces we see as we walk around town.
In a place where there’s great wealth, wonderful amenities, proximity to the ocean and plenty of economic activity, most of the people we see daily look downright miserable. The rest are so preoccupied with other things that they never get to enjoy whatever is happening in that unbroken string of moments we recognize in the present as “now.”
You know…those moments that are really sequential opportunities to feel joy and peace on an ongoing basis?
So, what are we supposed to think?
Well, for starters, how about we reconsider the correctness of the assumption that, regardless of where we live, we have the best, healthiest and most appropriate way of life, just because it’s ours and we’re attached to it? How about we recognize that our problems and worries are almost always of our own creation, and that we blindly cling to them, even when confronted with undeniable evidence that we’re stunningly full of shit about most of the things that bother us?
Then there’s the fact that as individuals and communities, we get all worked up over stuff that’s more or less the same as the stuff “the other guys” are worried about, even if the cultures, conventions and costumes are different. And most of it relates to ego, control, our personal sense of lack, our drive for “stuff” and money, and other matters we’ve been led to believe should be important to us.
Matters that obviously don’t lead us to anything resembling ongoing peace and contentment.
And we continue to get worked up over this same stuff, despite literally thousands of years of spiritual coaching from the proponents of institutional religion.
We’ve said it before: it’s time for all of us to strip the language of conventional expectation, false belief and illogical assumption from our inner dialogues. It’s time to challenge our closely held beliefs about the rightness of conventional wisdom, popular opinion and public morality. It’s time recognize that things are NOT, in fact, as you were promised they’d be when you were a kid.
It’s time to figure out how to conduct your inner dialogue in such a way that you can learn who you are and what you truly want and need, without hurting yourself or anyone else in the process. It’s time to recognize that every moment of life you’re given is a moment in which you get to choose joy or sadness, abundance or lack.
Make no mistake about that. The choice is yours, always. So, choose joy. Don’t be one of the faces of public sadness.
Our best to you, always.
David & Kathryn