With the massive amount of accumulated wisdom and profound perspective of 41 years of life, I am trying to challenge some of my core assumptions, in order to increase peace and happiness in my own life.
Sounds like fun, right? Growth and change can be uncomfortable, but I remain optimistic that happiness is accessible to me.
I confess, with a measure of chagrin, that I haven’t felt entirely happy in a long time. As long as I can remember, perhaps. I’m not suffering, not exactly. It’s certainly not always an acute discomfort, and is instead, more of a gentle suffocation. I am ashamed, because I have so much, and am so profoundly lucky in so many ways that it feels absurd to not be dancing and laughing constantly, in a profound state of near ecstasy.
But I feel like there is an essential bit of happiness that is just beyond my reach.
I always thought that happiness was external, something I could reach out and grab if I just tried hard enough. I tried as hard as I could, but elusive contentment stayed just out of grasp. What’s wrong with me that I can’t make that last push?
I thought my pain was either chronic depression, or the natural growing pains of a life trying to accommodate a new tiny dictator. My daughter is my biggest joy and blessing, but going from being a self-actualized, independent adult with a career, a social life, and a husband, to being a clueless single mom living in Vermont for the first time in more than 30 years… well, it has been a painful transition. Abandoning the life that I spent 35 years busting my butt to create hurts. These “growing pains” are not the root cause of my malaise, however.
I am the root cause of my discomfort.
Every day I say “I’m fine” when asked how I am. Every day I contort myself in a million directions to pursue meaningless goals without really knowing why these goals are important.
What does that facile “I’m fine” response get me? It’s a way to quickly move through a moment, and not connect. Is that a worthwhile life goal? To glide through interactions and pass by real opportunities for genuine interactions? And these “goals”? Who decided what I should be striving for, and why is it so important for me to exert my control over every aspect of my life? 41 years of pushing as hard as I can, of losing sleep, of exhaustion and strained relationships, and where am I? Have I achieved anything substantial? In a nutshell, no. I have not achieved much, and certainly nothing worth listing.
This year, I decided to not make a New Year’s resolution. Instead, I picked a theme for 2016.
My theme for this year is “intentional.”
I picked this word because I have a renewed interest in not seamlessly passing through my impossibly short stay in this life, this blink of an eye while I am a healthy mom to a darling and delightful preschooler. I want to choose happiness, for once in my life, intentionally. I want to appreciate the slow afternoons and the frenzied mornings. I want to goof off, and step off the frenzied rat race to instead invest in experiences and connections. I want to make a conscious choice about how I spend my limited time, efforts, and money. I want my interactions, no matter how brief, to be meaningful. I’m done answering “fine.” If you ask how I am, I’m going to give us both the opportunity for an authentic, genuine connection. Know what I mean?
Concurrently, I’m questioning what I’ve been taught to value and pursue. In my nearly 20 years of education, not one person told me that my happiness and peace were valuable.
Maybe it was obvious, too obvious to be stated, but without the reminder and support, my happiness took a backseat to every other facet of my life.
An interesting side effect of my deliberate choice about where to invest myself is that I feel less guilt. When I want to play with my daughter, I’m making the choice to turn off the perpetually scrolling to-do list in my head, and focus on her. There might be dirty dishes in the sink, but I will get to them eventually. When I am tired, I rest, and I try to focus on enjoying the short break. When I reveal to a friend that I am not fine, instead I am feeling overwhelmed by obligations, or lonely because my social life has hit a slow patch, I get two things in return: an honest exchange and connection with someone who more often than not echoes my observation and responds with more truth, and a satisfying feeling of being deeply present, and important in my own life. The dirty dishes in the sink don’t make me feel great, but spending an afternoon helping my daughter make backpacks for her My Little Ponies makes me feel fabulous.
I confess that it’s not easy for me to be intentional about my choices.
I am a worrier by nature, and the primary way that I handle my anxiety is by planning far in advance, and imagining possible outcomes and solutions for every unexperienced possibility. My mind is a hamster wheel of imagined problems and tediously thought out solutions. As a single mom, this incessant planning has served me well in many ways, as I am usually prepared for almost anything, and rarely have to ask for help. While I don’t want to burden my friends with my endless need, I fear that my over-preparation creates a scenario where I make myself hard to help, and consequently, hard to care for. That’s not what I want at all! When and how did I start believing that absolute independence was the way to go? Asking for help, needing a community, and being someone who is open to kindness and caring actions changes the way I perceive my world. Instead of being a cold place, where each individual is entirely responsible for herself, my world has started to transform into a place of possibility, a place where kindness is present, and where friends are available to help each other.
Furthermore, as it turns out, the world hasn’t come to a violent end because we ran out of milk two days ago and I haven’t gone shopping. A can of tuna and some cut up veggies do, in fact, constitute a perfectly adequate dinner. My daughter’s childhood isn’t ruined because I didn’t make her clean her room while I folded laundry today. These intentional choices gave me time to play several games of Max the Cat, the cooperative game so boring that my daughter adores it, since there is no chance of anyone losing or anyone’s acorns being stolen. Not only did I play Max the Cat, but I also spent time working on a project for a friend, which challenged my mind and made me feel good about myself.
The irony that I am now intentionally learning how to choose shortcuts and accept being “behind” and “slacking” in certain areas when I have spent my entire life trying to get ahead isn’t lost on me.
It feels as though I have stepped off some crazy flywheel into a great abyss of nothingness.
I sometimes wonder if I am a huge failure, or if I have maybe discovered something a little important. I’m not a better person when I have an organized closet. I’m certainly not happier either. Nor am I a worse parent when I let my child watch some TV so that we can both relax for an hour.
I think a lot about what I am modeling for my daughter. I do well emphasizing the value of exercising, the importance of friendship and love, and how to express our feelings. But do I want her to think that she’s worthless because she wasn’t able to make it the grocery store for milk on a cold weekend? Do I want her to only feel good about herself when she’s pushed herself past the breaking point: working, cleaning, cooking, and having all the laundry washed, folded, and put away? Isn’t it absurd to think that at this moment in my life, my self-worth could be based an awful lot on how many green vegetables I can convince my child to eat, and how clear my counters are (spoiler: my kitchen counters are a hot mess, along with my own sense of worthiness.)
I believe that I am more than the sum of my achievements, and the organization of my home. I have to start believing that my happiness is more valuable than the A I got in Chemistry, or the KonMari’ed drawers of clothing in my daughter’s room.
Being intentional about my choices means saying “no” when I am not able to comply, and it sometimes means cutting corners in order to spend more time laughing and playing with my child, and prioritizing my own happiness. It means giving up my pursuit of “having it all” and instead focusing on enjoying what is currently in my possession.
What do you think about being intentional, and having it all? What do you choose to pursue, and what have you let go of, in favor of happiness?