Tell the Truth, and Chase Happiness

chasing happinessYou tell me that your nights are cold and dark and long, and that words of beauty and love and hope ring hollow; I believe you.

Friends speak to you of the warmth they feel in the wind; you feel only the chill. They speak to you of birdsong, but though the birds sing and all around you it is spring, it registers only distantly with you, like church bells a thousand miles away meant to call only others to comfort.

Others still speak to you of the blessings that come with your loss; you feel only the loss. They speak of silver linings and positive attitudes. You’ve tried to see and wear these, but it only makes you feel more alone. Your rose-colored glasses have been shattered along with your world, and you feel no strength with which to face it.

Pain is a lonely place. This is true, whether it is your body or your parents or your children or your lover or your best friend or your government that has betrayed you. Those on safe perches and still in possession of rose-colored glasses have no right to hold out to you shiny words.

We’re built for happiness, not for platitudes, and happiness is not something that comes through another’s pink glasses. We must chase our own bliss, and we must chase it with every ounce of energy we can muster, because without it at least on the horizon, we will despair, and quit.

Chasing it is hard work though, and requires, literally, strength. So if you have no bed where sleep might restore an ounce of strength, and have lost the ability to come in possession of one through the ways you once knew: beg, borrow or steal one. If you have no pretty words, find a safe place for the words you do have. If you have no balm for your loneliness or pain, look someplace you haven’t yet looked.

You have a right to want to be here, to feel a smile from deep within.

And even if you fear your time here will expire long before you want it to, as some of my fellow cancer bloggers are, you have a right to want to be here, and to speak your truth about your rage, however uncomfortable this might be for others. You have a right to the clear-eyed vision you are now in possession of, and a right to tell those trying to persuade you to look at the bright side to please stop. You have a right to chase whatever it is that just might have the power to comfort you, and to make you smile now and then through your pain and tears.

Spring

spring 3I’ve been reminded, not just cerebrally, but in the shape of deeper knowing and experience, that spring is a most glorious gift. And that it often comes on the heels of deep, deep sleep.

And sleep, another of those most glorious of gifts, comes on the heels of a decreased stress response, on the heels of the hard, hard work that facilitates how we respond to injury. It comes on the heels of acceptance and peace, and a rise in anti-stress hormones.

To wake in the morning deliciously and deeply relaxed, to feel at one with your bed, to stir with gratitude and gentle anticipation of the new day, these are not things to be taken for granted. They’re truly not, though we tend to, until they’ve become elusive for one reason or another.

What just may have the potential to bring spring, that return to the budding of new life, can be many things, but it often involves persevering through something that is utterly exhausting. It involves a stanching of the bleeding or weeping that has long been sapping our energy, leaving us depleted and anxious and paralyzed.

There are many levels to this, in my experience: Insight into the origin of the wound beneath the weeping, yes, but insight that must finally translate into wisdom, a deeper knowing, right down to the DNA of our cells.

How this takes place is a little mysterious to me, but I do know there are many avenues to this transformation, and many key ingredients.

Key ingredients include courage, patience, resolve. The willingness to take risks. Investigation into the reasons we have lost our resilience, or voice, or ability to take action. It involves refusing defeat. It involves accepting that which cannot be changed at this particular moment, but determinedly pursuing happiness nonetheless. It involves knowing our essence is indestructible, no matter how injured or fatigued our body and psyche may at times become.

Change of this sort ends up changing us chemically also, at the level of neurotransmitters and anti-stress hormones, and physically, in the new paths our neurons forge. And I believe the reverse is also true—the raw materials of neurotransmitters and anti-stress hormones must be present to work synergistically with the psychic ingredients to facilitate the process of healing and deep change.

Once we’ve persevered through this process, and not given in to fatigue or the temptation to take the easier path, we begin to see more clearly. We become less vulnerable to further injury. We become less naïve, stronger, more creative and resilient. We remember again how to nurture and affirm ourselves. We counter negative messages with messages that though we are imperfect, we’ve been devoted and given our best. We take back much of what has been lost. We are no longer caught off-guard by the thieves within our own psyches, nor by those events and people around us bent on putting our lights out. We begin to register their presence early enough to take a different path, one bordered by tiny buds of promising new growth.

I’m so honored and happy to have been given much love through the winter, and to welcome spring again, and to be on this path with a small but brilliantly shining tribe of human beings.

Look at the Bright Side, always and only, right?

You wake up and remember the horrible thing that has happened to you. You’ve lost your job, or a friend, or a dream you had. You go through some shake-off-the-negativity exercises. The tightness in your chest or throat persists. You clearly haven’t practiced your positive thinking enough, right? Or you should be on medication. Or both.

Why are we so averse to grief in our society? It is, after all, the only truly normal response to reality sometimes.

The rash of self-help positive-thinking happiness formulas everywhere (and maybe nowhere more than in the blogosphere) has me cranky today, and I’m going to come out and say it: Bright-siding has run amok with its name-it-and-claim-it, happiness-and-success seduction.

I know the value of searching for and finding a bright side. I do it every day, many times a day. I know the value of not dwelling on and feeding our negative thoughts—they can quickly drown us when we stay there. I know the value of shifting our focus to happier distractions. Positivity is great, yes, and our thoughts do influence our decisions and the direction we take.

But I also know the value of being present in this moment, which most often has joy and pain holding hands.

I always try to transition from one moment to the next on the joy or beauty part, because it keeps me moving in that direction, but the idea that we can command our level of joy simply by monitoring and controlling our thoughts is absurd. If you’re deeply sad, you’re deeply sad. If you’re angry, you’re angry. If it’s a horrible situation, it’s a horrible situation. It’s fine to try focus on something you can still be thankful for, absolutely. But positivity taken to the point of denying reality is destructive, and robs us of our humanity. There is much beyond our control, and positive thinking has recently become a tool by which victims get blamed for their plight (they weren’t optimistic enough), and yet another burden to put on those who find themselves ill, either physically, or in the throes of anxiety or depression, or just plain old-fashioned feeling defeated by it all.

One of the top five regrets of the dying as witnessed by palliative care nurse Bronnie Ware and reported here in the Guardian is not having expressed true feelings. Cultural values of positivity-above-all are no help on that front.

Whitewashing horrid things is destructive, period.  Repressing pain is a waste, and actually puts our health at risk. We need hope, yes, but also realism and emotional integrity, not forced happiness.

Happiness

In the middle of being stuck in sadness earlier this week, as is normal for me with loss of almost any kind—rotating through the first four stages of grief and unable or unwilling to reach acceptance—came potent cheer and healing in the form the loveliest 11-year-old I know.

“I missed you so much!” she grinned widely, hugging us both. And then, falling into step with me, she echoed her mom: “Your hair is so pretty, short like that,” and then “I’m so glad your treatment worked!” And “I love it here, I wish we could stay longer.”

She travels regularly with her father to world destinations infinitely more exciting than Alberta, and I’m honored.

At home, we get all caught up, and later, making plans for the morning and the shopping trip I’d promised, she announces that she has, via iPod app, acquainted herself with West Edmonton Mall and has her shopping list ready to go.

At the mall, we visit Abercrombie and Fitch, where she is strongly drawn to a number of overpriced items. She pulls out her iPod, calculates the sale price, and agrees to look elsewhere, somewhere where we might be able to buy several items for the price of one.

We shop, she has a giant Marble Slab ice cream, and we shop some more, until the rest of us are tired. She has settled on a number of sale items over the over-priced Abercrombie and Fitch ones she’d initially eyed, but still not found the red jeans she’s after. I offer to walk with her to one more store to check, but she tells me it’s okay; she can tell from the look on her mom’s face that she’s had enough; we can always try another time.

She is far beyond eleven years of age—thoughtful, socially skilled, caring, sensitive, unafraid and funny—but also in every way simply an utterly delightful child. Her mom, carrying the bulk of the job of ordinary everyday parenting, as single mothers do, must feel both lucky and proud; she has done well.

We had fun, and I think I may have reached acceptance in those other pockets of my life again, for now at least.