Tuesday, June 21, 2011

False Dichotomies - Happiness versus Unhappiness

When we are growing up and learning language, we are not only learning to understand and communicate, we are being programmed, learning how to think and what words to use to think about concepts. We have to learn that to be able to use language appropriately, but if we learn it rigidly, our thoughts, too, will be trapped in rigid thinking.

Today while I was riding with Peter W. on our daily bike ride, I thought once again to myself how when I took this ride in 2006 and 2007, I was happy. I remember thinking how beautiful it was, enjoying the sunshine, the clouds, the flowers and landscaping, the lovely homes. I remember enjoying the breeze and being with Peter.

And I thought how changed that became when Leif died and other family problems intervened, how our perspective changed, our feelings differed.

Then I wondered how one gets back to that place of happiness and what happiness means. Does a level of mild depression become a habit? Does lack of happiness become habitual and defining? I think it can for some people, and they don't know how to break out of it. For those who have severe clinical depression or bipolar syndrome, or brain injuries, brain chemistry or damage betrays them and prevents normal feelings of happiness or satisfaction from returning or staying. For the rest of us, slow healing usually brings back a level of happiness or at least contentment.

But what if it doesn't? Can we consciously work to bring it back? I think we can.

We are taught that the opposite of happiness is unhappiness . . . or sadness, as though the two have no shades or states in between. We "are" either one or the other, as though our attitude and thought patterns and actions have no real effect on those emotions. We are taught that if we are happy, we cannot simultaneously be sad, but I don't think this is true.

I began to think about this and the thought patterns we cultivate in ourselves some months ago and I particularly focused on my feelings about being Leif's mother. I asked myself the question whether I was happy I was his mother, and whether his death overshadowed that happiness. The answer I came to was that I was overwhelmingly glad he was my son and that I had him in my life for 33 years, even though there were many problems during those years. I look at all the photos of his life and at one and the same time I am happy to have them, happy to see his smiling or serious, or sometimes silly face, happy for the good times we shared, happy for all we taught each other and learned from each other, happy for the family life we had; and yet I am sad for his pain, for his problems, for his death, for our loss. The two will always be inextricably mixed.

It's normal after a death to focus on the loss, for it is painful and the impact is life-changing, but it's healthier at some point to make a conscious effort to stop focusing on that loss and focus instead on life. This is not easy to do. It takes courage and determination. It's easier to stay focused on loss. It is monumental. It becomes habitual.

I also learned that happiness and unhappiness, or sadness are not exact states. They are a continuum along which many other emotions can be charted, from contentment and pleasure to annoyance and anger. There are so many more nuances to our emotions, and the other negative ones can become just as habitual if we let them. Emotions can be like any other habits in our lives.

We learned as children that somehow happiness, unhappiness, sadness all come from outside us, from external influences, and surely, everything in our lives does impact and influence those feelings, but just as surely, in many cases, we are internally influenced by how we choose to think about them, by our attitudes.

That I learned from listening to my Great Aunt Victoria wail about things in her past for years that other people wouldn't have felt were worthy of remembering, and learning to joke about situations in which we could take things with good humor or understanding, or "be like Aunt Vic" and cultivate our hurts and unhappiness. I think unhappiness can even become one's identity, or a part of it, and then it is even harder to let it go.

There are times when we are plunged into the depths of unhappiness, sadness, grief, whether from the death of a loved one or the end of a relationship, or some other catastrophic change in our lives, from interpersonal problems or difficulties in work or career, and then we experience the full measure of what unhappiness means. At that time, at least for a time, attitude doesn't matter. We cannot escape it or climb out of the black hole of despair, but we can try to find other connections, other things to believe in, focus on.

With time, we can climb out of the black hole, if we choose. And perhaps this is part of the meaning of letting go. We have to let go of grief and unhappiness itself, not just the person we are grieving for. It's not a quick process. It's not easy. There is even a part of us, of me, that somehow, sometimes, feels it's wrong to be happy after such a tragic blow, that we have to pay the dues of sadness, that it's necessary to prove our love. But how long does it take to do that? When can we allow ourselves to move ahead? At some point, if we decide we want to be happy, choose to find happiness, then we have to realize just as consciously, that we have to give up the identity of unhappiness and reach for a new attitude and focus. I am trying, and I accept that I can be happy and still feel sadness.
This photo was taken in our living room at Fort Sheridan, Illinois, when Leif was graduating from Northwood Junior High School in Highland Park, Illinois, May 1989.

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