Lasting Happy

This week I finished reading Authentic Happiness by Martin Seligman, Ph.D., which inspired several posts. See them here, here, here, here, here, and here.

In the concluding chapter of his book, Seligman poses a fascinating question. Is it possible that negative emotions such as fear, anxiety and sadness evolved in us in order to help us identify win-loss, or power-over games? These feeling reactions set us up to fight, flee, freeze, or grovel. If so, he speculates, might it be that positive emotions such as happiness evolved to help us identify win-win, or power-with situations?

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If this is so, and I know of no data that either confirms or denies it at this point, the stakes for understanding and pursuing happiness are even higher than I first realized. If we as a species can cooperate in such a way that everyone has an equal share of peace, joy, contentment, and happiness as we form communities and families, raise children, create and invent, work and learn together, we are actively creating a culture based on win-win, or power-with.

As I watched a violent mob storm the United States Capitol this week, and have absorbed what people are writing and saying about democracy and our Constitution, I recognize an epic struggle for power.

It occurs to me to wonder if democracy is not a destination, but a practice. The United States self-identifies as a democratic republic, but we are far from perfect in upholding democratic ideals, as the Black Lives Matter movement reminds us. The ideal foundation of a healthy democracy is equal power, which is to say equal voice. Some of us in this country may aspire to that, but we’re not there yet.

However, we’re closer to democratic ideals than many other areas of the world where people are engaged in bitter ongoing struggles for individual power and rights, as in Hong Kong.

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The thing about a democracy is that it depends on the consent to share power. This means individuals won’t get everything they want, all views will not be validated, all beliefs may not be supported, and each individual is subject to the power of the majority. It doesn’t mean we have no voice. It means our voice is not more important than anyone else’s.

Many millions of Americans were heartsick and fearful after the 2016 election. Many millions are clearly devastated by the 2020 results. This is democracy in action. We are each given a vote, but there’s no guarantee our hopes and desires will be supported by the majority.

I am struck, over and over, by the clarity of using power as a lens to view current events. Any individual who seeks power-over or win-lose dynamics is not fighting for freedom, justice, or democracy. They’re fighting for power for themselves and disempowerment for others. They may call their actions strength, courage, or patriotism, but that gaslighting doesn’t hide the bottom line.

A peaceful protest demanding equal rights is not the same as a violent mob intent on having what they want at any price, including human lives, regardless of the democratic rights of others.

If it’s true that we humans are at our best and happiest in win-win and power-with dynamics, our imperfect and battered practice of democracy is worth fighting for and strengthening. However, it’s a grave mistake to assume that’s the goal of everyone in this country. Individuals currently in power, as well as some others, do not want to see equal rights. They do not want a true democracy, in which everyone has an equal measure of freedom and personal preferences are subject to the will of the majority. They want absolute freedom and power, no matter the cost to others.

I have yet to see anyone who believes they have absolute power look happy. Arrogant, maybe. Boastful and triumphant, yes. But not happy. On the contrary, people I have personally known who force power-over dynamics have been weak, fearful, miserable, and emotionally isolated. I have not seen a happy face in all the footage from the day of the riot. Rage, contempt, stupidity and weakness, gloating, attention-seeking theater, mindless violence and a desire for destruction were all present, but I saw no peace, no contentment, and no happiness in that mob.

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Is a largely unhappy and unhealthy culture sustainable over the long term? Do we value control of others through fear, disinformation, and violence more than strength, courage, respect, cooperation, and happiness?

Democracy isn’t a free ride or an entitlement. A healthy democracy requires that individuals take responsibility for participation in sustaining it. If we want our constitutional rights to be protected, it’s up to us to protect the rights of others. Our personal freedom is not more important than the freedom of others.

Democracy is like tolerance; it’s a peace treaty that acknowledges and even honors differences within a framework of checks and balances so that one group cannot take absolute power. This protects all of us from authoritarianism.

Our constitutional rights do not include the right to incite or commit violence, the right to disempower or injure those we disagree with or don’t like, the right to destroy property, or the right to deliberately put others at risk during a public health crisis. They do not include the right to spread disinformation. Free speech excludes the incitement of violence.

Happiness builds social capital and resilience. It encourages broad-mindedness and cooperation. It’s self-sustaining, constructive, and creative. Supporting happiness in ourselves and others takes patience, courage, self-discipline, and strength.

Manipulating others through fear, rhetoric and disinformation is easy, and weak personalities employ those methods because they possess no other tools. Destruction and blood lust are brutishly simple and direct, giving an entirely false sense of power and control.

If we stood shoulder to shoulder and stripped away all our labels and identities until we were just people of skin, flesh, and bone, all living on the same exhausted planet, all with the same basic needs for connection, food, clean water, and shelter, what would we want for ourselves and our children? Would we choose to live in an atmosphere of violence, hate, and power-over, ruled by a mindless mob, or would we choose to create a more equal system in which everyone has certain freedoms but no one has absolute freedom or power, and in which everyone has a chance to participate, both through voting and service?

Do we want to concentrate on losing or winning?

Do we aspire to lasting happiness, peace and contentment, or chronic fear, anxiety, and despair?

It doesn’t seem like a hard choice to me.

My daily crime.

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New Year’s Day

On the first day of 2021 I joined friends for ice skating.

It was the best kind of impromptu celebration, begun with a generous invitation from one friend and coworker to another to bring her young daughter and enjoy the ice on the water adjoining her property. Then I was asked to come, and another mother and young daughter. The invitation was casual. Not everyone had skates. Masking and social distancing were taken for granted. No one expected to be inside or any kind of a party. No RSVP.

In the end, three adult couples, two children, an ecstatic dog and I found ourselves under a cold, sunny sky on a lake-sized pond. A snowstorm approached; the air bit with cold anticipation in the shadows on the shore, but the sun on the ice welcomed us.

I never heard ice speak before I came to Maine, but it does. It booms and thrums, singing in deep tones that one feels in the bones of one’s feet and legs as much as hears. It’s a primal, otherworldly sound, like whales singing, and it formed a wondrous background for the whole afternoon. Stepping onto the ice was like walking onto the body of an ancient primordial being, an old god of nature. The high, pure tones of the children and barking dog made a cheerful contrast to the resonant lake, frozen into still grandeur.

I have not skated since I was nine years old and have no skates, but I love my friends and their children, and I love this little corner of Maine. I’m also rather fond of the dog!

A thin, bitter layer of snow covered the ice at the shoreline, but where the sun reached it was bare, the ice tea-colored, clear and thick, filled with trapped air bubbles like frozen champagne, cracks running through various layers below our feet.

Our hostess provided the kids with aluminum lawn chairs with frayed webbing, retrieved from a shed by the lake. After their skates were on, they could hold the back of the lawn chairs and slide them along for balance and stability as they gained confidence.

Once the children were deployed with their chair supports, the adults with skates laced them on and slid away. Those without skates walked gingerly out onto the glassy ice to monitor the children.

The dog, a goofy youngster who, between you and me, is kind of a chicken and won’t do more than wade on the edges of the lake during the warm season while his family swims and boats, went suddenly from being the one no one could keep up with on land to having to defend his superior speed and agility on the ice. He raced off happily with a small group striking out for the far side of the lake, his paws slipping and sliding sideways, several inches of pink tongue dangling, ears flopping, tail in the air.

I sat on the dock, my bottom getting numb with cold, watching the kids and adults with them in the foreground and the skaters and dog, reduced to small blots of moving color in the far distance, beyond them.

The kids, in their colorful coats and winter gear, were up and then down, up and then down. They talked. They laughed. They used the chairs and then abandoned them, half collapsed on the singing ice. Adults called out encouragement and words of advice. Determination in every line of their bulky, padded bodies, they slid and staggered, leaned and swayed, made headway and collapsed. They lay with their ears pressed to the ice to hear it speak. They lay with their faces in the sun.

The more skilled skaters returned and joined in the play. Racing from one to another, the dog tried to keep up but was foiled by the more confident skaters’ ability to stop suddenly — without falling! Putting on the brakes, he careened across the ice, all four legs splayed, an expression of consternation on his face. How are they stopping like that?

He occasionally came to me (we’re old friends), panting and grinning, filled with joy and vitality, his chestnut coat soft and warm under my hands, but I was too stationary to be much fun and he was soon away again.

As skates were traded back and forth, another small group set out for the other side of the lake, one of my friends highly visible in the clear air because of her cherry red coat. Again, the dog took the lead, a low reddish blur, running gracefully as long as he didn’t want to stop. They skimmed, moving impossibly fast, while, nearer to me, the children began to stay on their feet more easily and it was clear at least some of the falling was now voluntary. It was like being in a painting by Breugel come to life.

As I watched, joy and gratitude filled me. What a year it’s been, an impossibly difficult, stressful, frustrating year, saturated with fear and loss, chaos and uncertainty, hatred and conflict.

Yet here, on the first day of the new year, were gathered together joy, blessings and beauties that endure: the peace and patience of winter, the tough bonds of family and friendship, the miracle of children, the innocence of play, the delight of the animals we love, the simplicity of sharing. I found tears in my eyes, and I wondered if it’s ever possible to fully express the preciousness of the gift of life in our place with our people.

I forget, sometimes, how unutterably beautiful life can be.

The kids began to get tired, and every parent knows that’s when the potential for tears and injuries starts growing. The ice had stolen all warmth from my feet. We gathered up the forlorn, crumpled aluminum chairs, folded them, and put them away. Snacks and drinks appeared from bags scattered on the dock. A hat came off a small head to reveal hair wet with perspiration. The children sprawled wearily, legs splayed, cheeks flushed, eyes starry.

Someone mentioned hot cocoa.

I was cold, but not ready to return to everyday life. I decided to walk the two miles home. The sun dimmed, the sky turning pearly as the storm approached. I turned down offers of a ride and said good-bye, treading a narrow road climbing up through the trees from the lake. My feet and hands ached with cold, but my face was warm under my mask and wool Buff, and my body and head were warm in my coat and hood. I stretched out my stride, welcoming the uphill walk. The dog followed me for a few yards, but turned back, drawn by the confusion of loading up cars and tired kids.

I gained the public gravel road and strode along, moving up a steep hill, feeling my feet and then hands gradually warm, conscious of and grateful for my ability to breathe deeply, feeling my heart thud in my chest, warmed with happiness and pleasure, and thinking about how to share it all in a post.

I crested the hill, feeling loose and strong, moving into my usual long-legged pace, watching the sky get milkier and milkier and the sun disappear as the edge of the front loomed.

It was good to be home and regain the solitude of my attic aerie. It was good to have a hot meal. It’s good to remember it all now, and put it into words on the screen. It’s good to share, to remind one another and be reminded that life is precious and beautiful and there’s always much to be grateful for. Today the snow is falling and several inches lie on the ice we played on yesterday, but I won’t forget.

Best New Year’s day ever.

My daily crime.

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What Are You Up To?

Family time this Christmas took the shape of phone calls and e-mails. I don’t live near any of my family now, though they are often in my thoughts and prayers. I noticed, during one of these phone calls, a pattern I’d not been fully conscious of before.

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When someone asks me what I’ve been doing with myself, what’s occupying my attention and time, I’m tongue tied. Something about that question stops me in my tracks. I hear myself give a stilted what-I-did-during-my-summer-vacation kind of report rather than a true, heartfelt answer. After these conversations, I feel like an idiot. I love hearing about what my loved ones are up to. Why can’t I give an honest answer to the same question? What’s in my way?

The answers to that (so far) are complicated, and interesting, and sad.

One thing I can say is that I much prefer listening to others rather than talking about myself. Talking about myself is embarrassing. Underneath the embarrassment is my persistent feeling of being a freak. All my life I’ve felt that I don’t fit in very well, and all my life I’ve endeavored to hide that fact. The best way to do that is to keep the focus firmly away from me!

Another obstacle has to do with schedule shaming. When I was younger, my days were filled to the brim with emotional labor, earning a paycheck, and taking care of others. I was busy all the time. I raced from one need to the next, none of them mine.

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Whoever or whatever I was existed only in a tiny cage in the center of an ongoing hurricane of necessity and demand. I could talk (a lot) about doing. I had few chances to just stop and be, and if I did, I felt ashamed for wasting time and making no contribution to anyone else.

This, of course, is absolutely normal for women in this culture. The expectation is that women with children, women with partners, women with family elders, live in just this way. It’s what women are for, and I asked for nothing better. It gave me great pleasure to take care of others, manage relationships, and live up to expectations, my own as well as everyone else’s.

What I didn’t realize until I stopped living that way was the terrible price I would pay for stepping out of that role and choosing to live for myself. Now, when someone asks me what I’m doing with my life, the true answer is NOT taking care of anyone else. NOT managing the lives of others. NOT burning myself out in unending emotional labor. I am able to choose Failing To Please anyone but myself.

Now I’m being. I’m meeting my own needs. I’m still busy, but not with running errands, doing housework, and general caregiving. I’m creating a life plan in the context of holistic decision making. I’m making a writing business plan as part of my life plan. I’m taking SEO tutorials and applying what I’ve learned to this blog. I’m taking tutorials on Excel and making spreadsheets as part of my writing business plan. I’m reading. I’m writing. I’m herding cats. I’m looking out the window. I’m doing midwinter ritual and welcoming the returning light. I’m loving people. I’m loving myself. I’m exercising. I’m searching for an editor and agent. I’m submitting writing for publication. I’m looking through seed catalogs.

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The part of me shaped by the overculture is deeply ashamed by these honest answers to what I’m doing with my life.

I was not able to be responsible for myself while taking on responsibility for others. Maybe some women can balance successfully between self and others, but I couldn’t. The demands were too many and too great. For a long time, I chose to be responsible to others without counting the personal cost, but then things changed, my kids grew up, and I committed the ultimate act of selfishness and betrayal.

I chose to begin taking responsibility for myself and let go of managing others. Managing, not loving.

Doing more of what I want to do (and less of what I don’t want to do) seems to be unforgivably selfish.

When my kids moved out to live with their father and finish high school, I was completely lost. Being their mother was my biggest piece of identity. Without them, I collapsed like a wet paper doll. That collapse was also a rebirth. With the help of friends, time, and my community, I gradually began to excavate who I was apart from a single mother, a daughter, a sister, a romantic partner. I discovered a woman I’d never had time to get to know, a complete person in her own right. I liked that woman. I loved her. I wanted to share her, proudly, with my loved ones.

But somehow I couldn’t, and can’t. I struggle with a largely unspoken (directly to me, anyway) background vibe of disapproval, resentment and wounded feelings. For the most part, my needs and choices aren’t openly challenged, yet reclaiming my power to have needs and make choices is met with a feeling of subtle withdrawal and withholding of true connection from some of those who have known me for decades.

I’ve written before about Baba Yaga, a crone figure from Slavic European folklore. The world is full of women like me, an army of Baba Yagas. We are postmenopausal and no longer objects of sexual or procreative interest. We are a generation of grandmothers, either literally or figuratively. We’ve learned and suffered much, and have a storehouse of wisdom. At our best, we’re earthy, bawdy, rich in experience and texture, honest, and direct. We can laugh at ourselves. We take tears and tantrums in our stride. We’ve made friends with ebb and flow, cycles and seasons, life and death. We are largely invisible and frequently undervalued and underestimated. We’ve played many roles in our time, been many things to many people. We’ve finally reached a stage of life in which we’ve become a whole greater and more powerful than any of our previous single roles.

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We have paid the price and reaped the rewards of being emotional slaves to others. Those of us on the road to cronehood have also paid the price and reaped the rewards of insisting on the freedom to be more.

I hate my shame. What kind of a culture, which is made up of individual people, shames a person for self-care and rewards emotional slavery? Are any of us born solely to serve others? Is that the only meaningful contribution we can make? Are women worthy of love only in proportion to our caregiving?

The most evil twist of all in this is that caregivers, people pleasers, and performers of emotional labor are quite often overlooked, undervalued, and taken for granted. I frequently felt unloved and unlovable in those roles, too. My choices were socially approved, but that was cold comfort. I want to be valued for all that I am, not just my socially-compliant roles.

So, what to do? Will I be less tongue tied now when someone asks me what I’m doing? Will my shame wither and die, now that I’ve examined it?

Probably not. I can commit to being more honest about what I’m up to in spite of the shame, but I suspect a part of me will always feel that I let everyone down in choosing to live my own life. It’s ridiculous to frame it in that black-and-white, either/or way, but we’re all shaped by our tribe and culture, and I’m well aware that many onlookers expect (even if unconsciously) women to stay in their place, which is to say remain as pillars of strength, support, and nurture for others to the end of their lives.

Even so, I won’t go back. I have Baba Yaga work to do now, work I was born to do, work life has shaped me to do. I earned my freedom and my own love and respect. My love for others has ripened into a powerful current, but it’s not slavish. It’s a gift I choose to give, not an entitlement or a duty. Loving others is not all I’m for and I won’t prostitute for reciprocity.

That’s what I’m doing with myself. Thanks for asking. My daily crime.

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