Letting Go of Happy

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The other day, I said to my husband, half-joking, “I’m going to be happy before I die, if it kills me!” For as long as I can remember, there’s been a little bit of sadness sitting in the back of my heart. I wanted it to go away. I read lots of self-help books and practiced gratitude. But then my book club scheduled a memoir I hadn’t picked up since college.

Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, describes the harrowing years he spent in Nazi concentration camps and the loss of his entire family, including his pregnant young wife. Not an optimist by nature, he still continued to write psychiatry texts while imprisoned and came to the conclusion that a good life is not necessarily a happy one.

In college, I learned from his book that each of us is responsible for deciding the meaning of our lives, and that it doesn’t come from outside us. This time, so many years later, I understood much more: that a meaningful life has creativity, love and appreciation of beauty, and dignity in the face of suffering. It doesn’t have to be happy.

Imagine being okay with that: not being happy.

Imagine a world without books and webinars and lectures on how to feel good every day. Imagine there’s nothing wrong with you if your clothes don’t spark joy or you don’t have a Vision Board. Imagine not trying to be happy but just being glad when it happens anyway.

Driving home on a sunny fall afternoon, I thought of my kids’ school days, and the struggles they went through. As their mother, I wanted them to be happy more than anything. But what made them the compassionate, self-sufficient men they are? The tough times when they were uncomfortably sad. Given the power today, I’d still smooth their road, and take away their pain if I could. But I’m haunted by the words of a heartbroken woman at the funeral of her young son who died of a drug overdose. “Feel your pain,” she implored his friends.

In the novel I’m writing now, the main character will struggle mightily before she learns that a good bit of heartache opens up her world. It’s been true for me. I’ve had many years of joy, love, creativity and ease. But if I’d been as happy as I wanted to be, I doubt I’d know what empathy is. I doubt I’d have compassion. And I doubt I’d be able to handle the hard stuff of life.

How about you? Would you choose, if you could, to be happy every day?

Comment on this post and I’ll put your name in a drawing for The Heirs by Fran Hawthorne, a novel about buried guilt and family secrets.

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