Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Reflections on Happiness

I used to be materialistic to a fault. I spent my twenties revelling in an endless cavalcade of stuff, bought with money that was supposed to be spent on self-improvement. It took an unconscionably long time to notice that desire never stayed dormant: each satisfied whim would attract its brothers and sisters and step-cousins. Once I realized that want begets want (a notion which really ought to be self-evident), I found myself at a loss as to what to do about it all. Stop wanting? That seemed like an over-reaction, not to mention impossible. I'd spent the better part of a decade mistaking ephemeral endorphin highs for happiness, but that goal of simple happiness eluded me. It sure didn't come with a full house, not least because that full house implied an empty wallet. But an empty house and a fall wallet didn't seem to be a fair trade.
It's silly to me now, but I hamster-wheeled in that state of mind for months, just prior to meeting my wife. The overwhelming characteristic of that mental space was despair: not a melodramatic I'm-gonna-off-myself despair, but more of an I've-failed-at-life-and-there-doesn't-seem-to-be-a-makeup-test kind of despair. I had no career goals, no life goals, just a bunch of own-goals and a sense that my life was veering out of control.

The spiritual books I was reading at the time (that's me, always looking to the books for answers) told me I can't have happy (well, duh), and I can't do happy, I can only be happy. The first time I read that I pitched the book across the room, enraged. Fat girl, be skinny. Poor man, be rich.  Oh, if all the world's problems could be solved with magical hocus-pocus incantations. Be happy, indeed.

Then I met Eva and it was like a switch was flipped. It's not that happiness came into my life--a corny sentiment, also a wrong one. It was that I discovered the capacity for happiness than had been in me all along.
What Eva did do was accept me unconditionally. It stabilized my life considerably, more and more as time went on. Now, some fourteen years later, people remark on how even-keeled I am. I'm still prone to little freak-outs when life pitches me a curveball, but they resolve themselves fairly quickly.
I've become a little more socially adept, a bit more self-confident, a lot more empathic. These are gifts my wife has given me, gifts I am eternally grateful for. But beyond the gift of a life shared with her, the biggest gift she has given me is understanding. Among many other things, I now understand the truth behind you can only be happy.

It's a choice. It's all a choice, every thought I think, word I speak, action I perform. That seemed preposterous years was so much easier to just say shit happens and privately wonder why all the shit seemed to happen to me. The truth, of course, was that I was the cause of my own shit.

And shit flushes.

I still have a ways to go. I need to find within myself the discipline to persist at a task. I also need to overcome a fear of rejection that I have allowed to paralyze me professionally and otherwise for far too long. I sense the answers to these questions -- which have eluded me far longer than that simple happiness I once yearned for and have now found -- are hidden just out of sight, behind a gauzy curtain I can almost reach and sweep open. But that happiness is a core ingredient to any lasting success in life, and it eludes many people just as it once eluded me. Be happy.

It really is that simple. Which is not to say easy. Simple is what life is when you strip away all the complications and complexities. (It's no wonder that the two most consistently happy groups of people are children and the simple-minded.) But we're wedded to our complexities and dramas and simplifying life is not always easy. It is, however, happy-making.

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