As a mom, and as a person, I’ve been needing to improve my tangible level of happiness. Which is something I’m used to thinking about as quite intangible, vaguely based on my state of mind, but quite vulnerable to the outside world.
My inner sense of contentment gets lost more often in recent years. I’ve noticed a certain deadening inside, a gradual loss of enthusiasm as I just push to get through each day. Not that I was ever even close to what a friend of mine calls a “bliss-ninny”. But more often than not, unless I get myself in hand, my inner dialogue can get so worried, put upon, and over-responsible that by day’s end, the results can be ugly.
Our family faces plenty of challenges, but no more than many. I want to show my kids how to be happy in the face of any circumstance, which is a basic tenet and teaching of every spiritual practice I’ve ever paid attention to. It apparently can be done and people have done it: stayed content and accepting even in the worst possible circumstances.
But right now, we are not in extreme circumstances and many, many things are wonderful. So, I’m zeroing in on the strange conundrum of when events that cause barely a ripple in the calm of some people, create cumulative tsunamis in others (read: me).
Some moms and I were recently having one of those comfy, long-ranging discussions about parenting, with all its peaks and valleys. One mom remarked how important she found it to remind herself that it is her job — and only her job — to be happy. And as a corollary, it is very important to teach this to one’s kids. Her right to say this is hard-won and impeccable – she has been through it all and writes a blog on women’s partys.
I’ve always filed this observation under my mental “Of course, but” folder. “Of COURSE I am responsible for my happiness, blah, blah, blah; but if x, y, or z disaster happens – then I can’t POSSIBLY be happy.” The folder just got bigger when I got kids. Qualifying events for happiness-busting have included chronic illness, years of poor sleep, financial difficulties, learning disabilities, tantrums, house remodels, marital differences, putting toddlers into snowsuits…. Hmmm, sounds like many families.
So, I’m just not quite sure how to manage this trick. There’s a difference between just swallowing resentments and gracefully letting things go. It’s hard difference to discern, because they can look and feel the same at the beginning. Simply putting calm and pleasant back into my voice after my husband has irritated me or when a child is throwing a fit over homework merely feels like I’m driving a tractor over myself.
Sadly, within days of our lovely happiness conversation, my friend’s apartment literally went up in flames. She cut short her vacation and went home to find that most of her home was lost. Biggest relief: the photos of her kids were not touched. Remarkably quickly, she announced the news on Facebook, spun the mess into a positive light and required that the only response to her post be fire jokes to make her laugh. Here’s her blog post on it.
This blew me away – I think it would take me months, or at least weeks to get to where she’d gotten, and it’s entirely possible I would lurk in catastrophe-mode for much longer than that. But I took it to heart – how can I do this and really create emotional health?
Like a good mother lion, I’ve built a thickly-walled world of safety and protection for my small children without necessarily feeling safe and content myself. But now as the kids gain an interest in newspapers and elections and wars and pollution, I’ve got to figure out something with more emotional truth. This requires much more mental discipline – learning and conveying, for example, what is worth being concerned about in our lives and how to let go of what isn’t. That’s a day-to-day minute-to-minute practice, watching my mind, catching myself and moving my inner dialogue through the chatter to contentment.
Which, of course, doesn’t feel very happy. It feels like work. I have enough work. At times, I stamp around inside myself roaring “Where’s my happy place!!” But the effort is worth it. When I do find a happy place, it’s like surfacing from the bottom of a muddy lake into the sun. And it gets a little easier the next time.
I’m being forced to evolve, which I will be grateful for once I get over the fact that I hate it. I don’t like the way I’ve been feeling, and I know what I’m aiming for – the agile, center current of a river that flows around obstacles. Not the lines that smash into boulders. Nor the sides that get stagnant in circling eddies. I don’t do it very well, but I do it better than I did. My kids are going to need this ability more than I ever will, so I’ve got to keep trying.