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Friday, December 12, 2014

The Adventure of Pain and the Pursuit of Happiness

I have a frown line. It slices my brow in half and renders me looking "bitchy" even when I'm feeling rather docile. It's a real condition, you know. I know because I've read about it on the internet. It's called 'Bitchy Resting Face'. You learn more about BRF HERE.

I have pondered several theories about how I developed this condition. Was it from squinting too much? Concentrating too hard? Do I pout a lot? Did squirrels descend upon me in my sleep and scratch my brow? Or, Am I a bitch? We may never know...

There is one theory that I've recently contemplated with some seriousness. Maybe, I have been unhappy. Unhappy, a lot. More than I've been happy. Enough to leave a permanent (at least without Botox) imprint on my face. A symbol to the world around me that I have been angry or sad or distressed... unhappy.

I watched a PBS movie a month or so ago, called 'Happy'. It discussed what makes people happy, presenting the very common philosophy that happiness is somewhat self-made. Happy people DO certain things that unhappy people don't do. The narrator introduced viewers to a variety of very happy people living in seemingly destitute surroundings, but, because of their community/generous spirits/positive outlooks they were untouched by their lack of comforts and conveniences. Of course the movie also touched on the merits of low-stress living and lots of good sleep.

The positive-thinking model for happiness has always disturbed me. Books like, 'The Secret', left me empty and unsettled, irritated even. It's not that I don't see value in optimism, or seeking out the silver linings; I just strongly disagree that a person can positive-think themselves out of legitimate trauma. The theory ignores the very natural and necessary stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. I'll concede that everyone is impacted differently by the disappointments of life. Some seem to wear no evidence of hardship at all. I'm both happy for, and question the depth of, those people.

Then there's the, "it could be worse, you could be...." answer to adversity; or the, "but look at all that you still have," response to loss; or even the, "buck up, we all have bad days!" pat on the back in the midst of devastation. These statements come from a place of naivety; at least I choose to believe that people don't say these things with the intent of belittling a person's very real pain. (See, I can be positive!) I'll never forget receiving a card from a well-meaning friend, at a time when I (the mother of three small children) had just lost my home, my church, much of my social support, and was facing my husband's pending imprisonment. The card said the equivalent of "darn, I got a run in my stockings and hit all red lights today - time for chocolate!" Do I even need to explain why that sentiment came nowhere near to easing my pain at that time? A "bad day" does not equate to a devastating blow. And yet, even a bad day merits the stages of grief, if only mildly so.

Like every other being, I have experienced loss. Some of my losses have been disappointing, some have been heartbreaking, and some have left me in utter desolation. I have no need to compare my losses to those of others. Certainly, and sadly, others have experienced more loss than I have. But the tragedies in my own life have challenged the plans laid in my DNA, and changed my very form (evidenced by my BRF??); much like the scars left by falling off a bike, chicken pox, pregnancy/giving birth, or injuries from war.

Last night I sat in a group therapy session. I listened to the stories of others and the insights of the moderator and internalized what I could. The group is for codependency, a little habit I picked up (in truck loads) along my way. Essentially, the message is to love myself better, and to love others without destroying myself. It's teaching me to allow the grief, be kind to my heart, and take care of myself.

I think I've struggled the most with letting go of the injustices and the hurts and accepting the reality of my life's picture. The death of my birth-father, painful break-ups and multiple divorces, betrayals, losses of homes, cars, income, beauty, and struggles with health; just typing the memories causes my throat to tighten. I've become disillusioned with so many of the desires of my youth. The canvass, which in the optimism of my childhood was soft and fluffy white, has over the years been slapped with abstract lines and harsh tones, portraying a scene that is drastically different from the hopeful visions of my prior self. Who is this painting of? Is she ok? Do I accept her, this ragged Picasso-like shadow with a frown line etched in her brow? I want to. I want to be proud of her. I want to LOVE her... me.

In our group, the moderator re-stated the ever cliche, "Life is not fair." She gave some impactful quote that more eloquently said that pain is a fact of life; the sooner we accept that truth, the sooner we can move on. Half of getting through the pain is just acknowledging that it could even happen to us. Hence, the 'denial' stage of grief. I guess many of us have a tendency to believe that we shouldn't have to feel pain.

Pain is the inevitable challenge of life. The irony in the acceptance of pain and the experience of loss, is that therein is the birth of empathy. It is in learning to cope with pain that we experience the rawness of compassion for the hurts of others and the beauty of our connection with humanity. Empathy is a powerful ingredient in the ability to love. It is in the adventure of pain that we find our courage, stamina, resilience, and our capacity to love, which, I suspect, is also the epicenter of genuine happiness.

In the words of Helen Keller, "Life is either a daring adventure or nothing at all."

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