Do let yourself trust the sweetness you experience, when there is so much suffering all around you?

My partner and I spent two weeks in Hawaii recently. We experienced an overwhelming flood of sweetness there. The malasadas—mouth-watering Portuguese doughnuts, filled with silky coconut custard, coated with crunchy sugar, and served hot—were literally sweet. Not too sweet. They were perfect. Looking at this picture, I’m amazed I had the self-control to pause after my first bite to grab my phone and record the experience.

Even more, though, we were showered with human sweetness in all its forms. Patience. Kindness. Generosity, including the gift of a week’s stay with a friend on the Puna coast, who also lent us her car.

To return to a place where my parents conceived me (they lived there right after they got married), where each of us had moved to take our very first jobs, and where my partner had married his first wife, felt like more than a vacation. It felt like a pilgrimage.

My partner did have a big birthday during the trip, and we had promised to scatter the ashes of a dear one who had passed away. Truly, though, we went because we were moved to go. We both felt the pull.

Being back there made both of us profoundly happy. The hardest part, as it turned out, was to allow ourselves to be that happy. The trip, with all its beauty and wonder, certainly challenged my beliefs about deservingness. I’ve thought about this a lot since we came home.

Is it OK to be happy in this suffering world?

There’s a great deal of suffering going on in the world right now. There always is. I can’t say why I’m finding it particularly overwhelming right now, but I am. I feel heartbreak, horror, and helplessness reading the news.

In the midst of all this, I took a trip to Hawaii. A voice in me persisted in saying I must be selfish, numb, or callous. As we drove and hiked around Oahu and the Big Island, visiting old haunts and exploring new ones, a voice in me asked, “What are you doing? How can you, or anyone, be happy, when such terrible suffering is going on?”

It’s characteristic of highly sensitive people (HSPs) that we are keenly aware of others, including others’ suffering. Given our natural conscientiousness, we can find it hard to look away. I know I do. At the same time, the idea of taking this trip came directly from my spiritual intuition, and I’m committed to live by that intuition as much as I can.

I saw how easily I could spend our entire trip feeling troubled and uneasy. That certainly felt wrong. Making myself miserable during a long-yearned-for, rare, and precious trip would not help solve the problems I was reading about in the news.

How could I resolve this apparent conflict? In essence, I was asking, “Is it OK to be happy in this suffering world?” Here are six responses that came to me as I found myself challenged by the joy that flooded through me day after day during our trip.

1—My definition of happiness makes all the difference

In fact, I have a specific definition in mind. By “happy,” I mean the deep peace and stillness that comes from settling into oneself and accepting “what is.” It’s like the ocean far below the surface, undisturbed by wind or waves. By this definition, I can be weeping with deep grief, and still be happy—because the grief is held in the larger container of peace.

2—I can be happy and acknowledge suffering

When I define happiness this way, I no longer have to choose between happiness and compassion. Thank goodness for that, because I’m not much use to myself or anyone else when I allow my deeper peace to be disturbed. Then, I become agitated, despondent, or hopeless. Given the endless stream of suffering in our world, I’d never feel happy if I couldn’t hold other feelings at the same time.

3—Fielding distress requires discernment

I have to practice exercising discernment, when I notice I am upsetting myself. I first pause and ask, “Is there anything I can do about this?” If there is something I need to do, I do it. If there isn’t anything I can do, I acknowledge the powerlessness inherent in that. Sometimes my only option is to take time to hold the painful mix of feelings that come up in me when I read the latest news.

4—If there isn’t anything I can do, I hand it over to Spirit

After I finish my daily meditation, I offer prayers to the divine for the well-being of all those who are suffering, and for a solution to the terrible conflicts playing out in the world. I also remind myself that handing something over to Spirit does not mean washing my hands of it. On the contrary. Prayer is powerful.

5—It’s up to me to protect the happiness I do experience

Because I’m conditioned to rain on my own parade if I stay peaceful and happy for too long, I have to watch myself closely for rain-making behaviors. These include worrying, criticizing, squabbling with my partner, and staying late so I feel crummy the next day. All these things lower my happiness level. Gay Hendrick’s book The Big Leap is a great resource for awareness about these patterns, which he calls Upper Limits behaviors.

6—Being happy is a gift of the spirit, from Spirit

Preventing myself from feeling peace and joy, when those feelings are alive in me, does no one any favors. On the contrary: I’m more present, more discerning, and more compassionate when I’m at peace. Any actions I do take will be more effective when I take them in this state of mind.

Life is so messy, day by day. Mine is, anyway. It is as full of knots and loose ends as the back of a hand-tied rug. However, if I stay connected to my spiritual intuition and remember the above principles, I can incorporate both sweetness and pain into the pattern of my life while staying essentially peaceful. This is essential self-care for HSPs.

Image © 2024 Emily Agnew