If You Have a Choice, Choose Happy: Look Ahead With Hope

Were you raised to believe that only self-delusional fools could be happy?

Posted May 27, 2014

We were a don’t-count-your-chickens kind of family.

We never made elaborate plans for good things — graduations, births, or weddings — because we were never really convinced that good things would actually happen.

Here is a real piece of dialogue, excerpted by my 1975 journal; the significance of the remark lies in the subtext: “I don’t think you should buy a new dress quite yet. June is still four weeks away.”

The unspoken but deafening translation of that simple statement was something like: “What makes you think you’ll pass every class? OK, so you’ve been an honor student up until now but who knows about the next month? You’re hanging around with rotten kids these days and that boy with the long hair is just no good. And don’t assume you know so much about the future, smarty-pants. Anything can happen.”

The assumption was not “Wow! A world of possibilities! Anything can happen!” but instead “Watch out! Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? Forget the Shadow: WE know! We know that life is out to trip you up and fool you into a false sense of security! The minute you feel happy and confident, BOOM, the ax falls. Take a sweater when you go out even if it is eighty degrees outside. Those June breezes can kill you.”

In contrast to happiness, misery was something you could rely on. Bad things you could plan for with certainty

Funerals were winners. Death was something solid; you could be sure of death and so going over the details in advance seemed perfectly reasonable. Choosing music for the funeral, picking outfits, selecting jewelry — all sorts of delightful preparations were involved. Wakes were more reliable than weddings, after all. At least the attendees at the ceremony could be certain of its permanence.

It was a strange way to learn about life, but it wasn’t unusual. Everybody in my neighborhood was brought up the same way — Catholics, Jews — and everybody was nervous that the good times wouldn’t materialize. Or that even if good times did manifest themselves, then you would have to pay for your happiness on a later day with unforeseen and increased trouble.

Here was the catch, as I learned in childhood: Only if you made yourself miserable enough, you might be OK. It might be acceptable to have a good time if you didn’t trust it or enjoy it too much, especially if you were already anticipating the loss or reversal of your good fortune. That was fine.

Only a fool expects to be happy.

It took me a long time to become a fool, one who welcomes joy. At 57, I’m still working at it.

The transitional moment came about 25 years ago when my husband Michael and I started to date seriously.

I had an tough old alley cat, Min, who was at that point my closest companion. Michael was surprised to notice that I would only buy two or three days worth of cat food at a time. That was because--naturally, given my upbringing-- I was always worried that she would die.

If she died, I didn't want to be miserable AND have half a shelf full of Friskies.

But I changed my ways--therapy and meds have helped. Over the years, I learned to plan for a future that will hold joy as well as sadness and that might well offer triumph as well as despair.

Min lived until she was 19 and died peacefully as a Connecticut cat.

And my husband helped convince me to plan for happiness and life.

Bad times, I came to realize, do not need to be summoned. Bad times break down doors and smash through windows. They will come fast enough and without encouragement. No one can avoid them, true, but they aren’t any kinder if you’ve been waiting for them.

Tragedy does not care whether there is an invitation. It invades.

The good days, however--times of celebration and joy, or even everyday pleasures of food, warmth, and companionship — deserve prompting as well as recognition. Our sense of well-being works on commission; our best times rarely come unbidden. We need to make them feel welcome. We need to hold the door open and make sure they know we are ready for them, glad to see them, and hope to see them again. This isn't foolish; hope isn't foolish; hope is the very stuff of life's best days.

The very best hope is the hope we make and give ourselves. Hope, intangible as it is, is nevertheless at the heart of self-reliance. It gives us strength when we need it and permits us be generous to others. Hope is what gives us--and lets us offer-- the benefit of the doubt.

If that isn't essential, what else is?