Thoughts on Happy

After missing 8 months of my book club due to the broken leg and pregnancy bleeding/bedrest/loss, we met at my house recently. I started the club six years ago because I didn’t read enough books or have enough time with my girlfriends. We have seen each other through births, deaths, new businesses and lost jobs over the years. One of our members, the incomparable Jamie, died suddenly in May of 2009 and since then, things have been rough for many of us. I was thrilled to be seeing them all and didn’t even give a thought to my grief being a problem.

I enjoyed myself until we began discussing the books. My first mistake was to pick two. I was excited to share both Half the Sky and Hand Wash Cold with these incredible women, not thinking that differing opinions might send me reeling into dangerous territory.  Unable to piece coherent thoughts together with my emotions whirling out of control, I found myself melting down in the face of snap judgments and a lack of willingness to listen to and hear each other.

Compassion is always born of understanding, and understanding is the result of looking deeply. – Thich Nhat Hanh

Both books have vitally important messages  – the first to accept the reality of our lives, the second to change what is unacceptable in the world. In my heart, those go hand in hand. A comment was made about our culture being obsessed with “happiness” and how it was more important to take action that resulted in feeling fulfilled. Unfortunately semantics – and grief – got in the way of conversation and I have been sitting with my feelings around it for the last week.

I think our culture has an obsession with “easy” and “more”. In general, we want things to be easier than they are, and we think that more – money, sex, clothes, influence –  will make us happier. The problem comes when we believe that being happy means we won’t have ugliness or darkness to deal with. Google “law of attraction” and  you’ll see how many hundreds of people are selling the easy way to everything your heart desires. The real spiritual teachers – no matter which path they choose to follow – will tell you that you can’t escape the realities of life, but you can understand them differently.

Personally I think seeking happiness or the end of suffering (or peace, fulfillment, contentment, joy) is a worthy cause, whether in ourselves or in the world. In fact, most people who are working on one, are also contributing to the other. Which is why I felt my two book choices were like two sides of the same coin. Some people find their fulfillment in trying to rid the world of sex trafficking, some in educating girls in Afghanistan and Pakistan, some in building hospitals to repair fistulas and some in looking deeply inside and shining what they find out into the world, whether that’s creating art, leading meditation retreats or volunteering at the local hospital. There is no path to true happiness that comes at the expense of another and there is a place for all of us and our gifts in the world.

One of the biggest pulls for me to Hand Wash Cold was the concept of embracing the ordinariness of our lives. I have heard this message repeated in various ways lately. Initially I resisted but my spirit kept wrestling with it. On Karen Maezen Miller’s site, she wrote about a review of her book by Lori Deschene over at Tiny Buddha. If only I’d printed it out to hand to my book club members, there might have been less emotional wreckage. Lori writes:

Most of us don’t want to be ordinary. We want to be special. We want to live bold, extraordinary lives punctuated by moments of passion, excitement, and adventure.

We want to fill our days with people, things, and activities that make us feel vibrant, and outsource the rest to someone else–someone paid to handle the mundane.

We want to take all the uncertainty that life entails–all the potential for loss and sadness and the truth of our mortality–and offset it with undeniable achievement.

We want to discover something, uncover something, build something, invent something, found something, prove something–be something. We want to be extraordinary. We want to be great–or at least moving in that direction.

We want our lives to matter.

This was me in a nutshell for most of my life. The problem with special, I’ve discovered, is that it sets up comparisons. There will always be someone smarter than, prettier than, skinnier than, more talented than me, you, anyone. I think this is why I spent much of my twenties feeling depressed. I was searching for the impossible and all I found was suffering. I had a great time too, don’t get me wrong, but most days when I looked in the mirror, I didn’t like what I saw. I didn’t want to be me. Finally I quit the acting biz and started my slow embrace of ordinary. What I’ve realized over the last five years, is that ordinary frees you up to be who you really are, love what you have, figure out what’s important and begin to make a difference in the world. That difference might be to publish two books, lead meditation retreats and speak publicly like Karen Maezen Miller, or it might be to organize a community garden, mobilize for a cause you believe in or raise a child with respect, empathy and an understanding of the inequalities in the world.

To quote Lori Deschene again:

Life, by nature, is ordinary. It’s because of our resistance to that word that it often slips away.

Karen Maezen Miller doesn’t write about her journey navigating a foreign country while filming a documentary, or her experience running a billion dollar Fortune 500 company, or her extraordinary life as an heiress, actress, singer, model, athlete or politician.

She doesn’t write about a life all of us wish we had.

Karen Maezen Miller writes about the satisfaction we can experience when we consider that maybe right now is a good time to be happy. That maybe we’re enough–that this is enough. Or as I quoted recently on the Tiny Buddha Twitter stream:

“Happiness is simple. Everything we do to find it is complicated.”

Now to address the elephant in the room: Karen Maezen Miller does live a life most would call extraordinary.

In addition to being “an errant wife, delinquent mother, reluctant dog walker, expert laundress and stationmaster of the full catastrophe” as summarized on her site, Karen Maezen Miller is a Zen priest, published author, and public speaker.

The irony is that she became extraordinary for accepting the ordinary and sharing it.

Yes. My point exactly – though much more eloquently made by Lori. In embracing ordinary, we no longer devote energy to being special and we leave room for our uniqueness to shine. I am not special because my baby died. I still have to wash the dishes, walk the dog and sweep up the dust bunnies. In my acceptance of this part of my life, of the immensity of my grief, I am also able to feel great joy. I am not running away from the ugly parts. At least I’m doing my best not to. In picking up my daughter’s toys, sorting through what I own, sitting down every day to write, I am creating space for the me I swept under the table long ago in my search for special.

The women whose stories make up Half the Sky did not set out to be anything other than who they are. Most didn’t have the Western luxury of contemplating what they wanted to do with their lives. They also do not have the time to pick lint out of their navels while worrying about being happy. I think this is partly why the search for happiness has gotten a bad name. It feels like the territory of a drifting, discontent middle class. Most of us in North America are so far up on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs that we can’t fathom what life is like in the countries Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn write about. Their book is a wake up call and should be required reading for every senior in high school. The danger, perhaps, is in turning our backs on what’s happening in our own cities in order to fix what’s happening in another country. This is where it’s important for me to remember that there are almost 7 billion of us on the planet and there is room for each of us to make a difference in a way that speaks to us. I wrote more about Half the Sky and its effect on me here. Since I’m already over 1400 words I will leave it at that and encourage you to read it, then share it with everyone you know.

In the meantime, I know that I know nothing, that I am a beginner on this path and that everything is up for debate. Losing Benjamin rocked my world and I am in many ways, happier for it, though that seems strange to say while in the midst of grief. I wish, with a mama’s love, that he were still in my belly, healthy and growing. In his death, I have found pieces of myself I didn’t even realize were lost. For that, I am grateful.

To be continued…

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0 Responses to Thoughts on Happy

  1. well, sugar, there is SO much i want to say, so much your excellent post enkindles, but it’s not a very good day for stringing words together coherently, so bear with me. i stand on the corner with you, sharing a soapbox. there IS room for everybody to help in whatever backyard they choose to work in. me, it’s family. and there are times when i grow quite weary and feel like i’m staying so, so small – like i could be doing so much more – then i breathe and remind myself that there’s nothing more important. and that maybe – just maybe – by tending my family members in all their whacky, maddening whatevers, i am tending the world. cause trust me: my kinfolks do get out!

    i am also in great like with this notion of focusing on the ordinary. or, said another way, overlooking what’s right in front of our noses whilst in search of some inarticulate grandeur. that’s a fine way to miss much.

    i like your selections for the book club, and i’m sorry things went horribly awry. frankly, that’s why i left the book club i started. it’s why i read/discuss solo or in small groups.

    anyway, i enjoyed this post immensely. just seeing your name makes my life brighter, then to be treated to intelligent discussion . . . well, wow. and thank you.

  2. Liz says:

    I am so glad that whollyjeanne pointed me in your direction. This is a wonderful post. I grew up wanting to be GREAT, more than… It is so hard to let go of those impossible dreams. I teach international public health, Half the Sky is required reading. My friends who went to grad school with me are working abroad while I teach in NJ. Some days I feel puny, others I realize I am already great, but more importantly I realize it doesn’t matter. Thank you so much for your writing.

  3. kelly says:

    well, there are so many places to start, but what you just described, about being ordinary, is exactly why i chose to call my blog mrs. mediocrity. it took me so long to figure out that i wasn’t different or special or all the things i thought i wanted to be when i was young. rather, i am completely ordinary, in the middle, mediocre. just like everyone else. and i am much more content because of it.
    i say content because i think happiness is a fleeting emotion, it falls toward the extreme end of the emotional spectrum and we are there sometimes, just like we are at the other end sometimes, but more of the time, we are somewhere in the middle.
    and i do think that we have the privilege of seeking happiness only because as a society we have moved beyond basic survival mode, but for people that haven’t, finding happiness is way down on the to-do list.
    and i am sorry, so sorry, to hear about your loss. your writing is beautiful and touching and resoundingly human.

  4. 4ceiba says:

    I have read both those books. To me they all seemed to go hand or page in page. Interwoven.
    I stumbled here thru a twitter stream, and am grateful to have found you.
    Sharing the journey..

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