Last week on Facebook I skewered the platitude “Time heals all wounds.”* Here’s another bromide in need of reality check: “No one is in control of your happiness but you.” Let’s not try this out on people living in or fleeing Syria, Iraq, Central African Republic, or any other place where the bodies and lives of innocents are ravaged and shattered by war, political mayhem, lawlessness, drought, earthquake, floods, famine, economic depression, social injustice, lack of medical care.
Unquestionably, it’s admirable and worth striving for to be able to take ownership and responsibility for making the best choices we can from those that are available, to stretch ourselves in seeking the positive, the proactive, the forward-looking actions and outlook, to resist blaming others for our unhappinesses past, present, petty or profound. But it’s unrealistic and unhealthy to pretend that outside influences have no impact on our sense of well-being, and it’s arrogant and cruel to deem others weak or lacking or pathetic if they can’t find it in themselves to be happy in the face of overwhelming tragedy or disaster beyond their control.
And may we never lose sight of the fact that there are times when it is necessary and appropriate to be sad, and to let ourselves be with our sadness, to go through it rather than try to go around it. To not fear it, to know that it’s part of our “being in control of our happiness.” And to accept that there are some sadnesses we learn to live with. My uncle married a woman who was as energetic, upbeat and loving a person as you will ever meet. I was a new mother when I learned that she had endured a parent’s worst nightmare—she’d lost a two-year-old child. I had to ask her how she’d survived it, because I couldn’t imagine doing so myself. Her reply ranks as one of the weightiest pieces of wisdom anyone ever instilled in me. “You reach a point where you realize that you will be happy again,” she said. “But you accept that you will never be quite as happy as you might have been.”
Thirty years ago I worked for a company at the forefront of interactive communications via cable television. We tested the technology in its earliest form by programming a text channel where we posted a question each day. Viewers could respond with their remote control device. (Imagine!) I was in charge of coming up with the daily questions. They ranged from mundane to silly to provocative. In the latter category, I one day asked, “If there was a pill that would ‘cure’ you of ever again feeling sad, would you take it?”
96% of respondents said no. How, many of them asked, would you even know you were happy if there were no sadness by which to gauge it?
The better mantra is the one my mother espoused (crediting Teddy Roosevelt) throughout life, loss, opportunity, and difficulty: Do the best you can with what you’ve got at the time.
Give yourself permission to be human, and to find your own kind of happiness within all the components that makes us so.
* from my Facebook page, 06/19/2014:
I hereby release you from the platitude that time heals all wounds. Time does heal many wounds, but all around us are many people living with wounds physical and emotional from which, despite valiant effort, they will never fully recover. Learning to live with loss and grief, with or without some degree of grace, doesn’t always equate to “healing,” and that doesn’t mean a person is sick or weak or bad or wrong. There are relatively few absolutes in life, and this isn’t one of them. Know when to be gentle and forgiving with yourself.