Even when it hurts, smile.

I was crying the first time I saw a Georgia sunset. It was absolutely stunning. The sky was alive with blues, purples, oranges, magentas. And I hated it. I thought it was ugly and I didn’t want to even acknowledge that someone might consider it beautiful.

I was finishing my one-way drive from Portland, Oregon to Atlanta, Georgia. I crossed over the Georgia state line just in time for the sun to start collapsing into the horizon, leaving behind some bright colors and the eventual black sky. I drove here to begin my dream career after years of fighting to earn the opportunity.

But it didn’t feel like I was driving towards something great. It felt like I was driving away from all of the things I love, the things that make me happy. Away from everything that makes me comfortable, everything that defines who I am. My bright red Mini Cooper crossed the line between Tennessee and Georgia but somehow my hope, optimism, happiness, comfort – my entire identity – stopped at the border and I left them in the middle of the Tennessee freeway.

I started crying and the sun began setting. The more majestic the sky became, the more I told myself that this was a mistake. I shouldn’t have taken this job. I shouldn’t have shipped all of my things to Georgia. I shouldn’t have left Portland. I ran through the list of all of the decisions I made that led me here – to this moment of achieving an outrageous dream that I’ve relentlessly worked for – and decided it was all wrong. My dream was wrong. I messed up. This isn’t what I want. It was all a mistake and I couldn’t convince myself otherwise.

We finally made it to our AirBnB condo and fell asleep. I woke up with a sliver of optimism. I had three days to explore Atlanta with the girl I’d fallen impossibly in love with before she went back to Portland and our relationship became something completely foreign and new. Three magical days. I was almost excited.

I was up early and wanted her to wake up to a hot cup of the finest coffee Atlanta has to offer. It was windy and rainy and ominous as I walked to the highly recommended coffee shop. The service was terrible. It took forever. It turns out they were short-staffed because the hurricane that had just ravaged Florida made it’s way up to Atlanta, making travel difficult and dangerous for people. My sliver of optimism faded. The coffee was good.

We were mostly trapped indoors for the rest of the day as the hurricane knocked down trees and blew the roofs off of homes. People died. It was awful.

The next day we tried to explore the city again but most everything was closed. It was still rainy and windy. We looked at a potential apartment for me to rent and I hated it. We got on the freeway back towards the AirBnB when a small pebble flew at my car and cracked my windshield. I hated Atlanta.

The next day we walked around what might normally be a beautiful park if there weren’t fallen trees and puddles and broken branches everywhere. I hated it. We drove to the airport. I walked her to the security line, told her I loved her and walked away. I cried one of the most painful cries I’ve ever had. I felt empty. I felt like my soul had left my body.

I was lonely, scared, filled with regret, anger. I had so much intangible pain and I had no idea what to do with it.

The next week was filled with an incredible amount of support and help from my family getting me set up in my new apartment but in a flash, they were gone and I was left alone. I had a week before my job started. I was more unhappy and pessimistic than I’d ever been.

I spent my time thinking about what a mistake all of this was and guessing how long it would be before my long-distance relationship crumbled and my dream girl decided she didn’t want to love me anymore. I didn’t look forward to anything. I wasn’t excited about my job. I couldn’t smile. Nothing was beautiful.

I scoured the internet for live music I would enjoy and bought tickets to two upcoming shows. I went to the first show and desperately wanted people to talk to me but made myself completely unapproachable with my arms crossed as I leaned against a table.

The band was amazing. So much soul and talent. The more they played, the more unhappy I grew. I couldn’t enjoy it. I wanted to leave after about 20 minutes but told myself I needed to stay for 45 minutes. I checked my watch relentlessly and left the instant I hit the 45-minute mark.

I spent the next few days walking around ignoring anything beautiful. The day of the second show came and I didn’t want to go. I was on the verge of skipping it and throwing away my $40 ticket but somehow got myself into my car and drove to the venue. I kept telling myself, “I’m going to have fun. I’m going to have fun.” Over and over.

The show started and I hated it because I hated everything. I decided to get a drink to help me relax or open up or something, anything, but when I turned around I realized I was stuck in the middle of a sea of people. It didn’t seem worth the effort to fight my way to the bar.

I told myself to smile but it wasn’t happening. Just then some drunk, dancing fool bumped into me. I turned to him and with all of my effort, forced a smile as he apologized for bumping me. It wasn’t really a smile, though. It probably looked more like I was asking him to tell me if I had broccoli in my teeth than a smile but it was progress. I was pleased.

I turned back towards the band but wouldn’t let go of my is-there-broccoli face. I tapped my foot to the beat. The song ended and I clapped and cracked my shell just enough to cheer. Not cheer, really. More of a yell like I’d just discovered I had a larynx and decided to try it out for the first time.

It was ridiculous and embarrassing and so stupid that I laughed. My is-there-broccoli face morphed into an actual, genuine smile. My foot tap infected my hips and my hips infected my shoulders. I started singing along with the next song. I almost started to feel like me again, like my soul was still hiding somewhere in my body.

The rest of the night was great. I lost track of time. I danced, screamed, clapped, sang. I kept bumping into the drunk, dancing fool and we chatted between songs. I think we even high-fived at one point. The show ended and I went home. I had fun.

Since then, everything got better. I am still lonely, scared, hurt and uncomfortable. I still miss everything about Portland. I still worry that my dream girl will decide she doesn’t want to love me anymore. I still wonder if this was the right choice. But I’ve come to the realization that these are all reasonable, healthy things to feel. And more than that, these feelings set me up for a very real opportunity to learn and grow.

Being unhappy and pessimistic, however, do nothing but hold me back from seizing the amazing opportunity in front of me. While those other feelings are fairly inevitable in certain situations, being unhappy and pessimistic has been my choice and that’s the only real mistake I’ve made.

Last night I went for a run and as the sun began to set, I found my eyes bouncing from cloud to cloud. It was beautiful and colorful and bright and it lasted forever. I couldn’t look away. The Georgia sky is incredible.

If she doesn’t want to love me anymore, if Atlanta turns out to be my least favorite city, if I never get comfortable, I will use that pain to learn and grow and improve myself. It is an amazing opportunity – as long as I allow it to be.

The next time I’m hurt and hopeless, all I have to do is realize the opportunity hidden in it. I have to look up and admit that the sunset is beautiful. And maybe I have to expose my teeth for a broccoli inspection until it finally turns into a smile.

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20 thoughts on “Even when it hurts, smile.

  1. You keep at it, James. I loved this post a lot. I’m proud of you for taking chances and getting out of your comfort zone. I turned 41 today, and, although I’m content (I really am!), I wonder how I might have blossomed had I not always played it safe. Here’s to looking forward to reluctantly admiring more sunsets.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Quite the transition, but it sounds like you’re fishing your way. Atlanta is a great place to be and I say that after growing up in WA. Hope that venue was The Loft or Center Stage – you’ll love it here. Best of luck with the new job & your long-distance love!

    Liked by 1 person

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