A few days ago I watched Hector and the Search for Happiness, a movie starring Simon Pegg, Rosamund Pike, and with Christopher Plummer and Jean Reno and Stellan Skarsgard and Toni Collette.
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A great bunch of actors! It didn’t get the highest of ratings, and frankly I was surprised by how much I loved it. It’s a journey story; Simon Pegg is a psychiatrist with a tidy, satisfactory life, and he chucks it all to travel around the world to discover what makes people happy. (yawn, I thought.) Then near the end, there’s a brain scan (oh that always irritates me, I’m a neuroskeptic), and when Pegg is holding the tremendous array of thoughts that he has learned constitute his happiness, his entire brain lights up — “the Northern Lights,” says the scientist. So I dearly love that, because I believe it’s true. Happiness comprises everything, all the feelings, even the bleak ones.
At one point the main character asks someone, “You’ve been through so much, how are you so happy?” And she (or he, can’t remember now) says, “I’m so happy because I’ve been through so much.” And at that point I jumped up out of my chair with tears in my eyes and said too loudly, “YES. Yes-yes-yes. Yes. That’s true.” Because it is. (I do this often and am glad I generally live alone. 😉 )
I’ve known a few people who grew up with just about as perfect a life as one could have in real life. One home for 18 years, thoughtful and educated parents, plenty of love, a lot of friends, success in school, off to college with no worries, college years were great, launch into life, the world on a string. Tiger by the tail. Take your pick of cliches. I’ve actually known people, real people, who had that life. Security, safety, love, peace. No traumas of any kind. No unexpected losses — maybe a grandparent here or there, but not ever unexpectedly or tragically.
It’s just those specific people I know, but boy are they unhappy adults. They’re lost. They’re empty. Their lives feel meaningless to them. (And again: maybe you know people from that life who are joyous adults with meaningful lives! I just don’t know them.) (Oh, wait, now I can think of a couple of them who got married to each other and are very very happy adults, with happy children.)
So let me not make an absolute claim here, but a general one. A simply easy life is not a happy one. A simply easy life is not a meaningful one. I am not saying that happiness comes from pain and trauma necessarily, but I believe it comes from the effort to deal with it. From the knowledge of having had it and gotten somewhere else, from the understandings you find in the process, and from what you learn about yourself and the world along the way. And I’m not saying that simple and easy times aren’t happy, because they sure can be! But they are happy in the context of the rest. I want to resist that easy thing people say, “without the dark you can’t know the light,” but something is true in it. Jung said, “The word happiness would lose its meaning if it were not balanced by sadness,” and I guess that’s right but those sayings seem facile to me, a toss-off, even if there is something true in them. Maybe they just trouble me because of the way people say them, an unconsidered bit of bumper-sticker wisdom said without much thought.
Around this time last year I wrote about happiness — a similar idea I had then, because I believe this so deeply. Happiness is both a momentary state and a deeper, complex experience. I feel happy when I look at Oliver or Ilan; that rush of feeling that overcomes me is a mixture of love and joy, definitely. My happiness where they and my children are concerned is vast, and includes their places in our family, their connections to their sweet mamas, my daughters, and Oliver’s arrival in the wake of our loss of Gracie. So that’s complex, definitely, but my feeling when I see them or think about them is simple happiness. But my own personal happiness, the center of me, my deepest experience, contains EVERYTHING. It contains my ability to feel everything that happens to me, light and dark. (Strangely, that’s true. My ability to feel heartache makes me happy. I’m happy I can feel that terrible feeling because it’s true and human.) It contains having survived the things I have survived. It contains memories of loss and sorrow. My happiness holds all of those things at the same time, and without any one of them my happiness would definitely be less rich, less meaningful to me.
My happiness also depends on the scary will to be vulnerable. To be vulnerable to you, to random strangers who might hurt me here or elsewhere, to people in my life, to possibilities. Like everyone else, I’ve trusted people I shouldn’t have trusted and been very hurt by them, but my happiness depends on being open again anyway.
I’m so happy because I’ve been through so much. Today I’m happy because I’m taking this yummy cake — which was easy to make early this morning because I’m still jet lagged, so I’m in bed super early and up super early — over to my dear friend Cindy’s house for breakfast. Today I’m happy because I will see Katie and Trey and Oliver later today, and I haven’t seen that sweet little fella since his birthday. Today I’m happy because my health is good and I can do anything I feel like doing without having to think twice, or cater to a hurting body part. Today I’m happy because I have dear friends. Today I’m happy because my family is happy and healthy. Today I’m happy because my hair looks OK today. 🙂 Big stuff and small stuff, yo. And today I’m happy because my heart has been tenderized and I can hold very tenderly, with understanding, friends whose lives are being hit with frightening illness. Today I’m happy because of the plans I have — making a triple berry cake for friends tomorrow, going to the UP in July, seeing Ilan and Marnie and Tom in June, something secret that’s happening next Wednesday, lots of great books in my Kindle that I’m dying to read — and because I rediscovered this beautiful poem, which I love because it understands the possibility of beauty out of suffering.
RUBBING — Stephen Dunn
I once saw a painter smear black paint
on a bad blue sky,
then rub it in until that lie of hers
was gone. I’ve seen men polish cars
so hard they’ve given off light.
As a child I kept a stone in my pocket,
thumb and forefinger in collusion
with water and wind,
caressing it day and night.
i’ve begun a few things with an eraser,
waited for frictions spark.
I’ve learned that sometimes severe
can lead to truer, even true.
But few things human can stand
to be rubbed for long—I know this
and can’t stop. If beauty comes
it comes startled, hiding scars,
out of what barely can be endured.
xoxoxo Happy Sunday, y’all.