Sunday, October 03, 2010

Choosing Happiness

I've got happiness on the brain these days. Maybe it's because I'm happy in a way I've never truly been for any consistent period of time. No, that's not right. I am happy in a way I've never been. Period. Which is not to say I've never been happy, because it is my nature to be happy. I am happy even when circumstances are not optimal. I am, at the core, a remarkably happy person, despite the fact that I spent a childhood--including those all-important formative years--in an atmosphere more consistently conducive to anxiety than to bliss.

Genetically speaking, I am even predisposed to suffer from anxiety and mental disorder. My brother experiences anxiety attacks; my beloved sis seems to fall victim to depression. My mother lived with serious mental illness, which inflicted its wickedness on the whole family. It was literally like living with an invisible monster; we never knew where it was lurking or when it would attack. That kind of dysfunction breeds distrust and a serious level of angst for all those who endure its wrath.

And as a small child, I was anxious. I was prone to stomachaches and even obsessive-compulsive disorder-like symptoms. I would think awful thoughts about my mom--they were uncontrollable, really--and then capitulate to the mind-numbing guilt those thoughts imposed upon my young psyche. How could I think evil thoughts about the woman who is supposed to love me more than anyone else in the world? But then, how could that woman do and say such hurtful things if she loved me? I could not break free of that cycle of taking responsibility for her choices (at the time, I had no idea she was officially ill) and feeling like I was a bad child, that I in some way caused her to behave like she did. From my earliest memories, I remember that unceasing torment of feeling unworthy and yet not knowing how to fix the situation. I would never be good enough, and yet I couldn't figure out what "good" meant because Mom was so inconsistent in her responses and reactions.

And then somewhere along the way, I made a conscious decision not to let her break me. I was still young...not even in double digits. Where the strength and determination not to let my circumstances dictate who I would be came from, I can't say. I don't even remember the moment I made that choice. I just know that I made it. I knew that I was not going to give up my one shot at being happy simply because it seemed it was my destiny to grow up in turmoil.

Maybe I was able to do that because deep inside, I always knew Mom loved me. Her actions and words may have indicated otherwise, but children are wise; they see and understand what is not apparent. I see that all the time in my youngest daughter. Although her illness was not officially confirmed for me until I was in my 20s, perhaps I understood that Mom was not always in control of herself. Maybe I saw that finding her own happiness was a major struggle for her. I don't know. What I do know is that my determination to be happy allowed me to get to age 45 and feel--truly believe--I've had a wonderful life so far.

And it just gets better. I am happy--profoundly grateful--for small things: the smell of rain, the moments of raucous laughter I share with my children, the opportunity to sit on my patio swing in the morning while I drink my coffee and watch the birds at the feeder. I love waking under mounds of blankets, the cast of light in this western sky around 6:00 each evening, the taste of ice-cold water as it slides down my throat. I consider it a blessing to be able to fill my refrigerator with enough food to keep my family comfortable, and I never underestimate the power of a kind word to strangers and friends alike. The feel of my children's arms around me as they hug me goodbye or the urgency of my man's mouth on mine when we are reunited after weeks of separation...these moments are what bring me immense joy. They make me happy even as other circumstances might pose challenges and difficulties.

There is no doubt in my mind that happiness comes from within. You can't buy it, and if you spend your life searching for it in other people, you'll be left with only a lifetime of disappointment and emptiness. Being happy within the context of the life you have been given is a choice; wanting what you have and letting that be enough is so much more fulfilling than being on a dedicated mission to acquire what you think you want. Because once the acquisition is made, then what? Where do you go from there?

I am fortunate not to have inherited the DNA that leads to mental illness or even anxiety. Those anxious tendencies I experienced as a young girl gradually disappeared. If there is a lingering after-effect of growing up in a home with that type of upheaval, it's that I am a realist. I don't count on much and I'm not good at depending on others. I believe I am the creator of my own destiny in that I choose what to do with the circumstances in which I am placed. I can embrace what is before me or reject it, and the results will depend on my choice. I find comfort in that.

Happiness isn't a goal; you don't reach it. You live it through your thoughts and words and actions. No one has the power to take it from you unless you give that power away. The world will always be full of pain and suffering, of evil and wrongdoing, of injustice and despair. Accepting happiness in spite of that is not an easy choice; it requires constant vigilance and commitment not to fall prey to misery. It requires you to allow yourself to experience all the normal emotions that make up humanity--grief, sorrow, disappointment, anger--and then move past them into the light.

Happiness isn't always easy; it's not your birthright. But it's always there, just waiting for you.

1 comment:

Mary A. Shafer said...

Wow, Beck. Great crystallization of simple yet profound wisdom. :)