If I’m not happy now, I’ll never be.
This sentence randomly popped into my head one evening, as I sat on my red sofa. It was that single notoriously chaotic hour before putting the children to bed.
Possibly I’m the last person who should be writing about “happiness” right now. It’s not that I’m unhappy, necessarily, but life with small children is, for me at least, stressful, and I don’t pretend otherwise. Conflicting with this beautiful mess of parenting children under six was when my oldest started kindergarten last week. It brought a flood of tangled, fragile, and sometimes volatile emotions—this awfully uncomfortable internal dichotomy of being so, so happy for her while being so, so sad for me.
People say having kids is hard. They say it because it’s true. Still, I know—even as I work through these “long days” and stormy emotions of loving little people so much and then watching them gorgeously break away—I know these are the best years of my life.
Recently, I was recalling to a friend how afraid I was in high school when adults would tell me high school contained the best years of a person’s life. I personally hated it, and hearing this made me feel terrified I would never be happy. Then I left. I went to college. I found subjects I loved to study, and, more importantly than anything else, I found my own groove in this world and in myself, and life became something kind of wonderful.
So I’m leery of imagining that any particular grouping of days are the best ones we’ve got, when, really, life is more of a scramble of good things—great things!—tragedies and stress. Additionally—although it seems saccharine and unicorn mythical—there’s value in thinking that how we perceive and enjoy life is a choice.
I’ve found it extremely helpful to look at my days as a whole; to consider that this one thing might have been pretty terrible, but this other thing was good, and that maybe somewhere in my brain and heart I can try to focus a little less on the bad and a little more on the good. This said, the world is realistically a place that, especially right now, is asking us to acknowledge and own the atrocities that exist (whether we ignore them or not) so we can make beneficial changes—the honest mentality that things can only get better with acceptance, effort and tenacity.
There’s also value in understanding mental illnesses like clinical depression, and the very real needs many people have for medication. There’s value, further, in trying to eat healthfully and take care of ourselves through exercise and relaxation. (But, like yesterday, when I saw a meme posted about how the best medicine for happiness is sunshine, exercise and rest, I couldn’t help but think that this is true—to an extent.)
Even with well-placed efforts and self-awareness, sometimes life feels…sucky. Some days are ones I want to race through, while more of my days than not contain places I wish I could stall.
I wish I could stall these years of my kindergartner’s life that flew past me. I was conscious of them and their voracious speed, sure, but regardless she’s now suddenly in kindergarten and not coming home until I’m thinking about what we’re having for dinner. I wish I could pause that smile on my toddler’s face when she came up an inch from mine just to stare at me. I wish I could pause her pride at being in her gymnastics leotard for the first time ever, this morning.
Life doesn’t work this way and, as the other night when I sat on my red sofa, I had this stomach punching realization that if I didn’t stop and embrace what’s wonderful about my life and the people within it more often than I admittedly do, I’m going to miss out. I’m going to miss it. I’m going to be on my phone or bitching to a friend, and it will all be gone.
This is different than pretending I have on and off switches for happiness. The idea we can shut out anything negative and just “be happy” isn’t only phony, it doesn’t feel comfortable either. Because there’s a different form of beauty and joy that arrives when we work through the complexity and intricacies that come along with the territory of being human. Because there’s a sharp, crisp appreciation of beauty and happiness that distinguishes itself when we sit smack next to uncomfortable feelings like stress and grief.
Things will happen in life that will make “happiness” not our first priority. We will have health scares. We will love. We will lose. Sometimes it’s this same deep sadness that shows us the veracity that our simplest, purest, and tiniest parts of life are often the ones that make us light up most. We’re reminded that our quality of life is stitched together in a profound patchwork rather than created from separate, more definitive parts.
My daughter’s throaty laugh, and the way she tells me I’m silly when I make her giggle, or the warm sensation of my baby’s belly pressed to mine when I nurse her; the instant calm of my husband touching my neck with the palm of his hand—these are some of the most magical, genuinely happy flashes in my life.
But, with all these enormous tangles and off-road paths of life, maybe happiness doesn’t have to be fleeting or illusive. Maybe a big part of it is still us.
If I’m not happy now, I’ll never be.
This sentence, alone, keeps popping into my head. There is no ending. Maybe that’s what we struggle with.