“What should I be when I grow up?”
“You can be whatever you want to be. Just be happy.”
With those words of advice I was sent out into the world. Dropped off at grade school—the place people go to taste every flavor of disappointment. Where we develop lasting insecurities, snuff the inner flame of enthusiasm, and unlearn how to be happy.
“Just be happy.” All the goal-setting I was ever going to get from my mom delivered with a do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do vibe. Those three words are the strategic equivalent of putting on a blindfold and spinning around five times before being told to go forth and find the donkey’s ass.
I knew what made others happy. My brother was happy just sitting on the front steps and identifying the make and model of every car that sped past our front door. My sister was happy being away from her brothers. So technically, I never really saw her happy. My dad was happy with air conditioning and a glass of iced tea and some wrestling on the TV. My mom was happy when no one died. My classmates were happy whispering about me, behind me, constantly.
But how was I to become happy? I stumbled, talentless, watching others, hoping to learn. I had no gift to develop. No purpose. My brother could take a car engine apart and put it back together adding new horsepower and fuel-efficiency. He could also build the garage to house the car by himself. I once asked him how he knew how to do all that. He shrugged and said, “I don’t know, I just know.”
I had nothing. All I wanted was a starting point to begin building my life. A clue. Where should I look? What sort of happiness should I aspire to—long-term fulfillment, short-term satisfaction, instant gratification? What if the things that make me happy today don’t make me happy tomorrow? Is this an endless pursuit? Is there an FAQ on a brochure I can read? I figured I’d eventually figure it out. I figured I’d never know.
It didn’t help that I always considered myself broken. I felt that I wasn’t supposed to be here. I was a mistake. Worse, an aberration. Soulless. A functioning body with an active consciousness. I’m alive and aware and incomplete. Half a person. Or less. I’m missing something.
“Just be happy.” I was old enough to wonder but too young to process the enormity of what my mom meant. I didn’t give it further thought. It sounded like a good plan. What could be confusing about it? How could it go wrong? I didn’t think to ask follow-up questions. As time slid by and that challenge presented itself in all its hulking glory, years had passed, and I felt like I should have been able to answer such a simple question myself. How could anyone tell me where my happy was? That riddle was for me to figure out. And it has been damn near impossible.
Someone cut the brakes and I’m heading straight into 45, not knowing where the exit to happy is or was. Is it up ahead? How far? Should I get over? Did I pass it? If so, was there only the one exit?
I have all these questions. And questions don’t generally make me happy.
I assumed when my mom said, “Just be happy,” she meant something like: “Be who you are and be happy with who you are.” Or “Do something you love, and love someone who loves who you are.” Or “Do something you love with someone you love for the glory of love.” But those are just a few possible interpretations among countless others. I don’t think shooting heroin was what she had in mind. But what if it fit the bill? What if the 18 year-old me had slammed my Stephen King book closed, jumped up out of my bean bag chair, and declared, “That’s it, I’m tired of living a lie! I’m doing heroin!” And what if she responded with, “Go chase that dragon, boy!”
I just never asked the right question. Probably because questions don’t generally make me happy.
I needed her or someone to give me some boundaries to narrow my focus. There are a lot of places for happy to hide in this big unhappy world.
With so many different cultures to misappropriate, how could I sort through them all and find the one that fits? What if I’m a Polynesian seafarer inside? What if my fulfilled life is on an orchard as a Greek fig grower? What if I’d be happiest as a Polish lumberjack, jacking my lumber all day? I can’t live all of these lives. And I’d waste lifetimes looking.
Even in the one culture I know (if white mongrel people can have culture, that is) there’s lot of false-happy.
Like iced cream. It makes your tongue happy when you eat it. But once it’s inside it squeezes all of your insides with ice-cold fists of iron cream. And then it fires up the guilt centers of your brain. And then you have to fight the guilt. And then it makes you fat. And then you have to go online and show how brave you are to all the haters. Because everything is a cause now. Absolutely everything.
Like Hell on Wheels, that AMC show about hipster railroad rock stars. You can watch it (and even enjoy it) and then afterwards, when you have time to reflect, you’re like, what the fuck just happened to me? How did I lose 45 minutes of my life? Why was that show so unapologetically racist with so many racial/ethnic stereotypes? I mean really! Is every Asian person skilled in martial arts from birth? Is every Irish man destined to be a drunk pimp? Why did I keep watching it? Is this really the same channel that brought me Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead and Better Call Saul and Into the Badlands? Maybe the next episode will be better. Let’s find out!
When I was 16, my mom’s mandate got reinforcement from pop radio. Did you know that Don’t Worry, Be Happy was an actual song that they played on the actual radio before some genius decided to cram it into an annoying robotic fish? Wikipedia doesn’t acknowledge my mom with a writing credit for that song. But damnit if Bobby McFerrin didn’t overhear her give me that exact advice. It captured everything my mother ever wished for me. Delivered so powerfully, so persuasively, so unforgettably. There were just two steps.
- Don’t worry.
- Be happy.
And they were in the title of the song! You didn’t even need to hear the song to get the message!
Yet I couldn’t do it. It wasn’t from lack of want. Here was this guru delivering sage wisdom to the rhythm of island beats and try as I might, I couldn’t pull it off. There’s no way to further simplify that message. The frustration I felt from being unable to follow this simple instruction caused me to spend long hours worrying about my inability to stop worrying.
My nights were filled with dreams of my mom with her arms crossed, slowly shaking her head, standing next to Bobby McFerrin wearing my dad’s bathrobe.
Of course now, with the Internet, that song wouldn’t last a minute. Triggered people would drop link after link in the YouTube comments about all the problems in the world, all the reasons to worry. They’d label McFerrin a “puppet of the patriarchy!” They’d make the argument that we’re not worrying enough! And if only people worried more about real issues affecting real people, then, and only maybe then, could we have a chance of possibly being happy. Maybe. Then they’d argue with each other about which problem was most important and deserved top priority. They’d use up the world’s supply of exclamation points, putting the exclamation point on the endangered punctuation list! Finally, with no solutions to anything, and more problems being generated with every new comment, the commenters would simply disagree to disagree.
I get it, anonymous commentators, I get it.
Hope is a beautiful, terminal lie. Happiness is a mirage. The harder I’ve tried to be happy, the further away happiness gets. I guess that’s the meaning of life—to distract yourself in the pursuit of happiness until you’re dead.
I’ve known happy people. At least, outwardly happy people. Something always comes along, some tragedy, to knock the ever-loving happy out of them. Some of them are able to shake it off and continue on in their happy ways. Those are the ones who die young.
The pursuit of happiness can take people into some pretty dark places. Destructive sexual fetishes and addictions. But what do I know about any of that? I’ve never considered drunk to be the inevitable result of drink. I’m too much of a hypochondriac to go for a dip in strange pools. I’ve really not pursued happiness to those extremes.
Maybe I can still ask my mom. “What did you mean by ‘just be happy?’” But she said it so long ago. A miserable lifetime ago. It would be a little embarrassing to bring it up now. The moment passed, you know? She might not remember having said it and then I’d have to remind her and she’d realize that I’ve been dwelling on this for years and it took me this long to bring it up again. She might think I’m slow or obsessive. Worse, it would confirm that I’m slow and obsessive.
But let’s say that I decide that my mom actually knows the answer. And arriving at the secret to my happiness is far more important than any potential embarrassment. And so, I ask her. I can imagine a few scenarios:
She remembers saying it to me and tells me that it was just an off-hand comment.
“You got yer panties in a bunch for more than 30 years because I couldn’t think of something more substantial to say to an eight year-old? How have you survived to be such a dumbass?”*
Which means that I’ve spent my life pondering a throwaway comment. Now my embarrassment is quadrupled, I’m even further from happiness, and I won’t be able to talk to my mom ever again.
“Works for me.”
*She would never say this, but people are always much harsher to me in my imagined conversations. Except for Kirsten. She’s exactly the same.
She doesn’t remember saying it, but that’s because she thinks it’s a generic answer for a generic question. This is basically the same scenario as the one above, but a degree worse because it wasn’t even worth it for her to recall giving that advice.
“Really? You were looking for meaning in an answer like that? Do you sweat it when a cashier tells you to ‘Have a nice day’? Is there someone who sold you a hamburger in 1988 that you have to follow up with next? Are you for real?”
And my greatest fear, she remembers saying it and answers,
“I was hoping you would find the happiness that has eluded me. So I could at least be content knowing that my kids are happy.”
Ah, gut punch. I’ve failed both of us. My embarrassment has turned into the double-edged deep shame of thinking my mom would ever be snarky to me and letting her down.
I’m sorry mom, I’ve really tried. I’ll keep trying.
I can only imagine how I’m screwing up my kids. Hopefully I die before they blog. Hopefully they have better things to do than blog.
I can be happy. But it’s fleeting. As soon as I hold it, it begins dissolving. It used to last longer when the days were longer and the summers weren’t long enough. Time clicks by and happiness is a blip.
One thing I’ve discovered is that I can’t be happy unless the people around me are happy. I’m way too dependent on how others feel. It drains me. I feel responsible even when I’m not. Which sucks. And even worse, it doesn’t mean that I will be happy if everyone around me is happy. It doesn’t work that way. I can be absolutely miserable while surrounded by 65 year olds and assorted music snobs at a Beatles listening party validating their preciously-held opinions and contempt for the current state of pop music. That’s a bad example. Who wouldn’t be miserable listening to Yellow Submarine? It’s fine children’s music, but as someone who has aged beyond Sesame Street, I really can’t imagine why anyone would choose to listen to it.
My point is, while I can’t be happy unless everyone else is, I can be unhappy while everyone one else is happy.
I like putting others at ease. But I’m kinda terrible at it. Ask Jill.
I like reading a well-written story. But I never seem to have enough time.
I burn with happiness when my kids smile. That’s the longest lasting happiness I can hold. So I hold them and I try to remember their smiles and warmth when I need a fix of happy.
This post didn’t make me happy. But maybe now that it exists, I can stop thinking about the question.