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Not to kick off the first week of the first Happiness Challenge with a downer of a post, but...I don't know--perhaps by giving the issue words it takes away some of its power? Allows happiness and sunlight and butterflies to come swooping through, enveloping my whole world in a Broadway musical of a day? One where I am wearing mustard yellow pants?
I'm talking about flimsiness.
I want my happiness to have the tenacity of a South American dictator, only folding to an overpowering military coup. South American dictators ignore the groans of the commoners and South American Dictatorship Happiness ignores those small disappointments that don't really matter in the long run (um...did I just imply that the groans of the commoners don't matter?). I'm not talking about health crises or loss. Those small disappointments are the things that make you believe that you are having a shitty day: the fight with your friend, the setbacks at work, the phone calls never returned, the ideas that were snubbed.
Until you have stability in your happiness, those small disappointments have a way of blowing the house down. And when you have actual disappoints that pass over into the tragedy zone--failed IVF cycles, pregnancy loss, inability to continue treatments--it feels like you're trying to erect a house in the middle of a hurricane. It's going to get blown over. At the end of the day, is happiness a material that can withstand a storm of emotions?
How to circumvent? I'm not really sure. I'm really struggling with this as I read this book. I'll have a day where I'll feel a certain sense of peace and I'll think to myself that I'm on the right road. I'm letting go of my stranglehold on control and I'm enjoying being here in this moment rather than always thinking about what will happen next. I am not worrying about things outside my control. Okay, I really am, but I'm trying to talk myself into not making those things the focus of my day. I can bring myself to unprecedented anxiety levels if I allow myself to run with some ideas. I can cry now or I can cry now AND later. And I am choosing to be happy until that point in which I am not.
And at the same time, shitty words from a friend or a remembrance of how things often go wrong bring down the small pieces of house I've managed to erect. Tal Ben Shahar quotes a famous study in the book from Seligman about learned helplessness. You probably have heard of this study if you've ever taken a psychology 101 course. Three groups of dogs are all given shocks. The first group can turn off the mechanism delivering the shocks by touching a panel. The second group are given shocks repeatedly and there is nothing they can do about it. The third group receives no shocks. Later on, the three groups are put into small boxes where they can easily escape. They receive shocks again. The first and the third groups jump out to stop the pain. The second group resign themselves to the shocks and remained in the box, unable to imagine that they have any power.
Infertile women often fall into that second group of dogs. We're beta bitches; dogs tied to the results of a blood test or a long awaited referral.
After so many cycles of not receiving that elusive positive, after so many treatments that end with a negative, after so many losses, we don't enter with enough hope. Sure, we say we have hope and part of us does have hope because we know of too many stories where something unexpectedly works. But why is it that even after we receive that elusive second line, we rarely let go and feel complete blissful elation? We know too much, certainly. But I think it's also a bit of learned helplessness. We know that with our given track record, there is a good chance that it will all go to shit. So we allow ourselves to focus on that anxiety and focus on that sadness. And we skip over the few moments of happiness we could have grabbed before it went to shit. Or, even worse, we miss out on feeling happiness when it actually is the real deal.
I know I'm guilty of this. I was still hiding my one successful pregnancy until I was five months along. I never believed it would work out. And even having had it work out once, I still carry pessimism. It feels like you're protecting your heart by focusing on what could happen. You're steeling yourself for that flood.
But loss or failure? When the worst comes, whatever form it takes? It's like a tsunami. There is nothing you can do to prepare except build your house inland. And even then, it can be taken by an earthquake. It can be taken by a tornado. There is no amount of prep work that can get you through life without experiencing any pain. Just because you cried beforehand doesn't mean that you won't cry again when it actually occurs.
We're so scared to celebrate. We're so scared to buy things or tell people or have that shower or make plans. But disassembling a crib will not be the action that takes you down if the worst were to occur. That worst moment will take you down even if you never purchased a single baby item. Even if you hadn't dreamed up a name.
And if you have done those things and enjoyed them as you did them, you will at least have that. You will at least have those happy moments even though you also have the sad ones. You can't do anything to keep the sad moments at bay, but to also keep the happy ones at bay due to fear or a belief that it will protect you in the future? It is much easier to write than to put into practice. And it's not that I've had much success with this mindset. I am guilty of mourning before there is a reason to mourn. But I'm trying to put into words what I want to do--even if I haven't had success yet.
How do you shore up happiness? You grab as much as you can take. You don't hold off until the storm clears to start building. You need a house now. These are the conditions you're dealt. You can either gather as many bricks as possible and use them as you build your house, even knowing that your hard work may come toppling down with the next gust of wind. Or you can sit there and watch other people build. You won't have the frustration of having your hard work dismantled. But you also won't have the house in the end.
Maybe this is just an extension of the thought that it is better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all. Is it better to have been happy and lost that happiness than to never feel that peace at all?
Now get building, will you? You are being pelted and knocked around and your heart is lodged by all of this rain. But maybe you can get a few walls up. And maybe seeing them will help you to remember that you can do it--you can build it--even if they are knocked down and you're set back from time to time.
A clarification. Or more thoughts. If I ever do get pregnant, I don't think I'll stare at that line and say, "knowledge be damned! I am bringing home a baby in nine months." I don't think I'll race to create a registry or start washing and folding onesies. My fear is in my constant premourning. I think I spend so much time being upset before something happens, holding the happy moments at bay because I think it will make sad moments easier, that I miss out on having both the happiness and the sadness. I simply only have the sadness.
It is possible to have a happy pregnancy that is not a giddy, ignorant pregnancy. We all know too much. Even if it is not our own history, we know the histories of other stirrup queens. We know what could happen. It's all your point of reference. Someone who has never had a pregnancy loss doesn't think much about pregnancy loss any more than someone who has never been assaulted thinks about violence as they're walking down a calm street. Your point of reference can do one of two things. It can prepare your mind for the possibility. Or it can frighten your mind into immobility.
Thinking through both the comments and today's post on Serenity Now (who is living and breathing this right now), I wrote: "I think what I wrote yesterday is this idea that I mourn before anything bad happens. It makes me miss out on good moments. And it doesn't make loss any easier. Not having to talk about it because you didn't tell anyone, of course that's easier than having people constantly ask about a m/c. But holding happiness at bay with the belief that it will make sadness easier later on? I think sadness will still be terrible later on. Albeit having missed out on the joy too.
I was reading an A.M. Homes book last night and there was a fantastic line: "does bracing oneself against something offer any protection?"
All of this is to say that you need to do what you need to do to get through this. If you were looking for permission to feel joy, I think it's a good thing. I think it's a healthy thing. I think there's a difference between eating a diet only of candy and then being shocked by the consequences and eating a balanced diet with some cake thrown in too, even though you know later on as you stare at the scale and feel unhappy about your weight that you wouldn't have wanted to forgo the cake and live a cakeless life. If that analogy makes any sense whatsoever."