The Meaning of Happiness
At seven, she is dreamy, funny, contemplative and just delighted with herself. Typical of her age cohort, she tore apart her wrapping paper with a fiendish glee, strutted around in her brand new mermaid tail (though she has her doubts that mermaids actually exist, she still holds out hope that she can become one, say, as a career or lifestyle choice), and spent half the day talking to herself in the mirror as she is apt to do.
It was during one of these mirror episodes that she turned to me suddenly and said, “Mom, was the day I was born just the happiest day of your life?”
It was not.
The day of her birth and the subsequent few years were by most standards pretty horrible, in fact. Not post-apocalyptic horrible, but bad enough so that I could strike envy off the list of reasons why people didn’t like me.
Naturally, I wasn’t going to say that. I was also prepared for her question and able to turn to her without missing a beat and say with complete honesty, “You are the best thing that has ever happened to me.”
I’ve written about Josephine’s health problems fairly extensively on this blog (see For My Mother, May 6 2014, if you wish), so I won’t belabor that point. This post isn’t about her fight to survive, but something else entirely.
Her question just got me thinking again about how we define our lives, the decisions we make and how they effect our long-term well-being. About the struggle between happiness and meaning – something I’ve given a lot of thought to over the years. Even in those happy-go-lucky years pre-Josephine. The years when our biggest problems revolved around getting a good night’s sleep, whether to buy a fixer-upper or a reasonably renovated home, how to lose that last five pounds that pregnancy had visited upon me. Those were very happy years – when my husband and I mostly chased pleasures.
I don’t regret a single, frivolous moment.
But even when my husband and I were at the apex or our pursuit of happiness period, there was something about our make up that wouldn’t allow us to try and sustain that sense of bliss on a permanent basis. Plenty of people we knew were willing to do so at any cost – avoiding inconveniences and entanglements like the plague, revolving all of their big decisions, like how many children to have or whether to have any at all, whether to marry or continue living together – around lifestyle.
But then, we were living in California at the time. Sort of comes with the territory.
I actually remember the day I realized we’d somehow lost a deeper sense of service to something other than ourselves. One that was encoded in our DNA by years of Catholic school and family stories of hardship (won’t belabor that point either, but it’s a theme here on Cold). The fact is, we were starting to hit the wall on our California experiment.
Don’t get me wrong. I know I’m sounding like a California hater and that’s just not true. Some of the best times in my life were spent in the Golden State. My husband and I made dear friends and started our family there. Those are very meaningful things.
But happiness and self-fulfillment are as much a part of the culture there as guilt and shame are a part of Catholicism. And there is a pervasive tendency to find beauty only in beauty.
This was driven home to me one day at the spa.
I’d recently given birth to our first child – a healthy son – and that alone does get the heart juices going. My husband, Jack, being the great husband that he is bought me an entire spa day at a very swanky San Francisco spa on my very first Mother’s Day.
I was beside myself. Really. I couldn’t wait to go. I’d given birth, been breast-feeding on what seemed like a round-the-clock basis and had been up all night for weeks. I needed this desperately.
And for the first hour or so, it was so, so nice. Especially since the day began with a full body massage – which is like chemotherapy for a new mother. Without the un-lovely side effects.
But right in the middle of hour two, during a multi-sensation inducing “ultra” facial, my spa day started to turn on me.
Between the fake sounds of a bubbling brook complete with cawing birds and cricket symphonies, the intermittent New Age muzak, wafts of aromatherapy and what was fast becoming a tyranny of pleasures and pleasantries perpetrated by hush-voiced, toned young men with names like Darius, I thought that if I had to stay for the entire gauntlet of treatments – the ensuing mud bath and hot towel mummification – I might go insane.
But I did stay.
I felt too guilty to cut and run after my husband had given me such a wonderful gift. He’d paid a small fortune just to indulge me. He’d also played Mr. Mom all day with our infant son without a complaint, passive aggressive comment or hint about the standing ovation he should receive for his efforts. He is an enormously competent and fully grown-up man, which is one of the many things I love about him.
I also love that he fully understood when I told him about my day.
And that understanding began a discussion that would wrench us from our glamorous city lives in San Francisco and deliver us to a town that wasn’t exactly Mayberry, but was certainly slow, pastoral and grounded in tradition. A place that was more equipped to help us through the hardships we’d be facing in the coming years – when our happy lives would come to a crashing halt. At least for a while.
Because when I elaborated about my dreadful too-much-of-a-good-thing spa experience, my husband got very pensive. He nodded and looked out of our rear window – where the opera singer practiced her arias, gourmet Margaritas were consumed on a nightly basis, and the grass on our tiny patch of backyard was astroturf-perfect and surrounded by bougainvillea. He said, “You know, I think we’re going to have to re-evaluate our lives.”
That spa day was an incredible event of foreshadowing. In the years to come we would be needing much more than happiness if we were going to be happy. Endlessly chasing the dragon of happiness can lead to a great time had, but it can also leave a person ill-prepared to continue to feel well during more profound periods of heartache. If there’s nothing of real meaning under-girding a lifestyle, it becomes all to easy to fall prey to a toxic cocktail of self-pity and depression when the big stuff happens.
We knew on an instinctive level – almost as if we had some inkling that Josephine was headed our way – that it was imperative for us to deepen our faith and find greater purpose – joy even – in something other than a fun, uncomplicated existence.
In our post-fabulous years, we’ve settled in a small college town in central Virginia. We help groom the grounds at the monastery where we go to church, we volunteer at the local hospital – giving speeches about parent perspectives to young nurses and residents, we stay in most nights. We should probably go out more. But we do mix great cocktails that we drink nightly on our porch, we have friends over as often as we can, and we hit the beach every year.
We hardly think about what things were like “before” anymore, although recently I got a little taste.
Last week, I visited San Francisco for a wonderful week of friendship, food and wine in honor of one of my very best friend’s significant birthdays. It was a week of both happiness and meaning as a group of 7 women laughed and talked and shared about both painful and frivolous events.
I walked around San Francisco, which appears to have become decidedly more family-friendly since our time and observed young couples who were just as we had been – a mom pushing a stroller with a sun drunk toddler in it, a dad sporting an infant carrier complete with a hazy-eyed newborn, the color of his irises yet indeterminable.
I admit I felt nostalgic for those times. We were different people then, ones whose peace of mind had yet to be broken not just into shards, but ground to dust. Our younger selves didn’t fully know how good we had it or how bad things could really get.
But at the same time, I felt a profound sense of relief that those footloose days were behind us. Our decrease in happiness has come with an unwavering confidence in ourselves both as individuals and as a couple.
We know what we’re made of now.
And we have some wisdom to impart to our children. Something to give to friends who are struggling. And a list of priorities that doesn’t begin with achievements or desires.
We love more deeply and when we dance, we mean it. Most counter-intuitively, we’ve recaptured a teenage ideal of true love and loyalty while having acquired an adult’s sense of forgiveness and good judgement.
It’s a great life. And it’s a life filled with meaning, if not always happiness. And it’s a fine place to be.