It seems that every day I am bombarded by memes and messages on Facebook that suggest that world peace and a cure for whatever ails me is just a cup of tea and a few positive thoughts away. Today a good friend (hi Gary!) posted a message that tells me that if I am too busy loving life I can avoid anxiety, worry, drama, or regret.
Baloney! And that is using my polite voice.
Fortunately Gary, in additional to being a good and thoughtful friend, is a good sport and accepted my comment about the fact that such posts royally piss me off with his usual good grace and humour.
A few weeks ago I stood in the emergency room of our local children’s hospital having a conversation with a doctor about my expectations for life support should Matthew’s condition further deteriorate. To translate for those of you who don’t spend time in the ER having chats like this, the conversation was about how far the team should proceed with medical intervention before we all simply accept my son’s inevitable death. For the record, if I presented as happy during that conversation the team would have reasonably suggested a psych consult for me.
Unlike what Facebook tells me, thinking happy thoughts was not going to reduce the drama or the anxiety that filled every inch of that moment, or the ones that followed. There are simply times in life when it is acceptable and appropriate not to be happy. There are times in life when sadness, anxiety, fear, despair, and anger fill us and all the spaces of our lives. Saying these things does make me a pessimist. It makes me a realist. I accept that suffering is a fact of life and that happiness is not necessarily an achievable state at all times. In the end I think I am a happier person because I am realistic about the elusiveness of perpetual happiness.
Suffering is unfortunately a part of life. Sadly, our Western society is desperate to do everything possible to drown out that idea. There is this sense that if we just keep talking (screaming?) about how we can be happy all the time we can keep suffering and difficult moments at bay. If we read enough Facebook messages about how to be happy then we will miraculously be happy. All. The. Freaking. Time.
It doesn’t work that way. Life isn’t fair.
There are moments in life that are genuinely awful. To suggest that we should walk around being robots programmed exclusive to the happy mode all the time is ridiculous. This constant pressure from our prosperity gospel society that tells us that a happy life is the only way to live and is only a few happy thoughts away does an incredible disservice to all of us, particularly those who for whatever reason are suffering or who are clinically depressed. There are many situations in life when happy thoughts do not help and telling someone to think themselves happy compounds suffering.
Even among those of us who are not struggling with depression or who are not suffering, this blind adherence to finding unending happiness not only sets us up for constant disappointment when we cannot find perpetual bliss, but it mutes the full range of human emotions because we are told that only one emotion counts – happiness – particularly a warped form of North American happiness that values fleeting attributes such as youth, health, beauty, wealth, and influence. There is so much wrong with this thinking that I am not sure I could contain it to one blog post.
As an extreme caregiving parent I have found that this crap about constantly striving for happiness is just that, crap. In my view we ought to be striving for different experiences such as contentment, community, hopefulness, and gratitude, while acknowledging that the full range of human emotions are both appropriate, but also acceptable.
Somewhere along my journey of life I was offered some excellent advice. I cannot remember now if it was actually a person, or book, but it doesn’t matter. I was advised not to strive for a “cup of life” that overflows with joy and happiness, but rather a cup that is full enough. A metaphorical cup that is so full that it overflows is defined not by me, but by the size of the cup. The bigger the cup, and we in North America insist on some pretty damn big cups, the harder it is to make it so full it overflows. Our expectations for joy become so overwhelming that it becomes very difficult to find “full”, much less overflowing. Enough, however, is an elastic measure. Full enough is defined by me and can change to accommodate the bumps of life. Enough also reminds me to adjust my expectations to acknowledge that many would be grateful with my cup even if only containing a few drops. Enough allows me to find and define contentment even during difficult moments.
Like the days when Matthew is in the ICU and I allow myself the daily treat of a latte. Those are the days that hot coffee fills my metaphorical cup quite enough.