We Need a Trick to Feel Our Joys as Deeply as Our Griefs

Written by Eric Kaplan

Just when the coronavirus started to hit Los Angeles, my dog, Ori, stopped eating. I was afraid he had cancer, and I was worried I would have to have him euthanized because it would be dangerous and wrong to be driving a dog around for cancer treatments while we were trying to avoid contact to save human lives, including my mother-in-law’s.

I took him to Dr. King Moon, his vet. Ori and I waited in the car to avoid infection until it was our turn.

The next morning we got a call that his blood work came back and that he had severe kidney disease. There was an expensive treatment that was unlikely to work or we could have him euthanized.

On his last night Ori was feeling terribly. He stood awkwardly on a sofa.

Then when he was too tired he lay down.

Then the doorbell rang — Nicolas from Postmates was bringing us some food. Ori tottered off the couch and ran to the door and barked.

I cried. I felt guilty because I had been mad at Ori many times during his seven years for barking too much. I realized that he was doing what he viewed as his responsibility — protecting the house and the family.

He did it even when he was dying.

Strangely, it felt good to cry. I’ll say it more sharply — it felt good to feel bad. I wondered — why does it feel good to feel bad? How can it? I had two theories.

The first theory was that the pain put me in the moment. Instead of coming up with plans for the future, with Ori’s death happening the next morning, there was nothing I could do. I had to accept the moment. And that felt good.

My second theory was that honesty felt good. I was always evading truth in my life — I have a dog but he will die. Now I was facing it. And that was a relief. But I wondered, why would I need grief to make me live in the moment honestly?

Why couldn’t I feel joy as deeply as I felt grief? It seemed like a flaw in my mind somehow, that I could feel good only by feeling bad.

When my daughter made 11 pies and left them in the garage a few years ago, Ori got into the garage and ate the middle of eight of the pies. Why couldn’t I have felt joy in that moment?

I mean I found it funny, but why couldn’t I have had joy as deep as the grief I felt looking at him sleep and thinking about having to euthanize him?

I thought: We need a trick to feel our joys as deeply as our griefs.

I thought about why the grief felt good: It forced me to live in the present moment and made me realize that even though I loved Ori, he was going to die.

So I came up with the following tricks.

First Trick: I would think I only had the present moment. To make it vivid I imagined I had a bomb strapped to my neck that was a second from going off.

Second Trick: Then I thought maybe I should imagine everybody I loved with bombs strapped to their necks.

In fact, what if I imagined the whole world with bombs strapped to their necks that were a second from going off?

But I didn’t want to reuse the bomb thing. Instead I imagined we were all hanging from a thread over a fiery pit and a gerbil was chewing the thread.

It was a good trick in theory, but in practice it worked horribly!

It didn’t give me a feeling of joy at all. It just made me nervous and weird.

I am still looking for a good trick to feel joy as deeply as I feel grief. If you have one, send it to me on twitter @ericlinuskaplan.

I suspect the problem may be that our minds have evolved to do the work of the day — deciding whether or not to euthanize the dog, or where to put the pies so that the dog won’t eat them, or how to get a bottle of bleach into the house to disinfect the house without infecting the house.

So failing to live in the moment and detaching ourselves emotionally from the present serve a purpose.

I took Ori to Dr. Moon the next morning. I thought maybe the best thing we could do was to take turns.

One of us will live in the moment and feel deep joy and deep grief, and the other one will do the work of the day.

We Need a Trick: collaboration with Eric Linus Kaplan / client: The New York Times