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.
I read an article about using this holiday season to clean up messes, not just physical messes, but relationship messes.
This struck me because one of the things my mother taught me, both by example and frequent repetition, was to leave the planet better than I found it. Not fixed or transformed, but a little bit better. I always loved that. It made me feel that I had the ability to do something good.
This article suggests that we leave every relationship better than we found it in every interaction. A new twist on an old lesson.
So, what does that mean?
If you’re like me, your first impulse is to go into full people-pleasing mode. But people pleasing doesn’t make relationships healthier. In fact, it has the opposite effect. A healthy relationship is based on two healthy participants, and people pleasing enables emotional tyranny on the one hand and inauthenticity and burnout on the other.
Been there, done that. Not doing it again.
If we’re going to leave our relationships better than we found them the last time we looked, we need to know what a healthy relationship looks like in the first place. This all by itself can be quite a challenge. A good way to check on the state of our relationships is to ask ourselves if we’re happy in them and our needs are being met. Our feelings will quickly tell us if our connections are healthy or not.
Hopefully, most of our relationships are closer to healthy than destructive, so if we want to leave them better than we find them all we need to do is find at least one way to strengthen them.
Relationships are tricky, because we only have 50% of the power in any given connection. We can’t force others to change their behavior, communicate more effectively, or otherwise meet our needs. All we can do is focus on our own behavior and communication skills. If our relationship is toxic, we can’t clean it up alone.
Here’s the hardest thing of all. It may be that the best way to make some relationships healthier is to end them.
I know. Let’s all wince and cringe together. Ready? One … two … three! Wince. Cringe.
If there’s anything worse than ending a relationship, I haven’t found it yet.
Still, setting aside loyalty, duty, obligation, fear, investment, love, and all the rest, if two people are making each other miserable, or even if just one person is miserable, the relationship is destructive and someone needs to end it.
We could be that someone. And when I say “end it,” I don’t mean ghosting, lying, making excuses, shaming and/or blaming the other party, changing our phone number or moving out of state. I mean telling our truth, gently, clearly and firmly: “I’m feeling unhappy in our relationship. I want us both to have healthy, supportive connections. I’m ending our relationship so we have room for someone who’s a better fit. I value the time we had together.”
An unhealthy relationship is not better than none at all.
Many of our connections are not toxic, however, and coast along fairly well. In that case, how do we leave them better than we found them the last time we interacted? Not perfect, but a little bit healthier, juicer, happier?
I’ve been thinking about this question because I’d like to apply it to my relationships this holiday season and beyond. It occurs to me that making relationships healthier doesn’t necessarily mean making them more comfortable. I know much of what has made my own connections so dear in the last few years has involved a lot of discomfort as I risk being authentic and vulnerable. I also know from my own experience that my strongest and healthiest relationships are truthful, and hearing the truth about another’s experience of us, or responding truthfully to hard questions, can be quite uncomfortable. This kind of discomfort fosters trust, respect, and strong relationships.
Here are some ways I have the power to leave my relationships better than I found them:
Am I giving time with my loved ones my full presence and attention?
Do I listen at least as much as I talk?
Do I rush in and try to fix problems that belong to others or ask good questions, provide resources and tools, and convey my belief that my loved ones can manage the challenges in their lives?
Do I take everything my friends and family do and say personally?
Do I make assumptions and jump to conclusions or ask for more information?
Do I maintain effective boundaries and honor the boundaries of others?
Do I express my gratitude and love to those I’m connected to?
I’m surprised how long this list is, even without much contemplation, and reminded of how powerful we are as individuals to influence those around us.
We humans are highly social, and we all need healthy connections. The most valuable gift we have to give others and the world is ourselves. Nothing we can buy comes close. Working on relationships is messier and more complicated than buying a gift, and requires us to be honest and vulnerable. Yet we are the gift that can keep on giving to those around us, and they are the gifts that can keep on giving to us.
Cleaning up messes in the world and in our relationships might be as simple as picking up trash in our neighborhoods or reaching out to someone in our lives today and telling them how much we appreciate them. Or perhaps we have a big mess we’ve been putting off dealing with, or a relationship that needs to end.
As always, we mustn’t forget about our relationship with ourselves. When we go to bed tonight, will we be a little happier and healthier than we were this morning? If our relationship with ourselves is fundamentally broken, we don’t have much to give others. The list above works equally as well when applied to the way we treat ourselves.
Leaving the world and the people around me better than I found them. My daily crime.
Is it possible to share our happiness? More specifically, is it possible for me to share the things that make me happy with others? I ask because my immediate answer to the first question is yes, of course. My immediate answer to the second question is no. Well, rarely. Let’s say rarely.
Martin Seligman makes a statement in his book, Authentic Happiness, that I’ve been thinking about for several weeks. He writes that seeking out others to share our happiness with, and telling them how much we value the moment “is the single strongest predictor of level of pleasure.”
I’ve struggled all my life with an intense desire to share my happiness with loved ones and an inability to do so.
It works well the other way. For me, one of the joys of connection is allowing myself to become enlarged by the presence of others. I’ve always loved being exposed to what those around me enjoy: new music, new movies, new books, new ideas and new ways of doing things. All my close relationships have made me bigger and contributed to who I am in this moment, and I’m deeply grateful for it.
But I rarely seem to find reciprocity. Or flexibility. Or curiosity. Or something. I’ve never been able to figure out why. Is it that the things that make me happy are stupid, or inappropriate, or boring? Is it something about me? Is it that some people don’t value sharing emotional experience and joy and I have a genius for wanting to connect with those kinds of people?
Maybe some people have no happiness to share?
My inability to share my happiness and enjoyment with others has left me with a painful feeling of guilt, as though it’s disloyal or a betrayal if I enjoy something others can’t. Or won’t. Guilt turns me inward; I pursue my happiness in secret, stifling my longing to share it, struggling with feelings of rejection and resentment. I show up in their lives to share. Why don’t they want to with me? Am I needy? Demanding?
Around and around I go as I think about this, getting nowhere useful.
When I encounter a hairball like this in my life, I look at it through the lens of power dynamics. The fact is I know what makes me happy. I value experiencing the happiness and delights of others. Both are entirely within my power. I do long to share my own happiness, but sharing requires the participation of another, and that is not in my power.
Guilt and shame are not useful burdens to carry around. My happiness takes nothing away from anyone else. Making myself unhappy doesn’t ease someone else’s unhappiness. Hiding my happiness doesn’t seem like a useful choice. As for resentment, holding on to that only hurts me.
Another problem with my strong desire to share my own happiness is that it reinforces people pleasing. I tie myself into knots thinking about exactly the right timing and approach in order to get someone else to be interested in sharing something I enjoy. Or I tie myself into another kind of knot trying to optimize what I think makes others happy, regardless of the personal cost to myself. If we can’t share happiness, and if something other than what I have to offer gives someone happiness, I disappear as much as I can so there’s maximum room for whatever I think is most wanted.
It sounds so easy. Find someone to share our happiness with. Tell them what the moment means to us. Enjoy the pleasure.
What am I doing wrong?
As I think about this, I wind up in a familiar place—with myself. Exploring happiness during these last weeks has made me newly conscious of my experience. Over the last couple of decades, I’ve gradually learned to befriend and care for myself, replacing old habits of self-destruction and self-loathing. I see now that much of what I’ve done for myself, rather than waiting for someone to read my mind and do it for me, or give me permission to do what gives me pleasure, have been the same things that make me happy. It’s just not a word I’ve felt very friendly with or applied to myself before.
I’ve thought about all this during my Thanksgiving break. I spent hours and hours cutting greens and making holiday decorations. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and it was extremely stressful and uncomfortable. I enjoyed it because I love working with my hands, giving gifts, and sharing (there’s that word again) the glory of our evergreen trees and the spirit of the season. It was stressful and uncomfortable because I feel so much anxiety about sharing those things that give me such pleasure. Would I be making people uncomfortable, imposing a gift return obligation? Were the decorations ugly or inappropriate in some way? Would people already have wreaths and decorations and have no use for them? Were they too much? Too little? People probably can and have made or bought something much better.
This is familiar territory, as it’s always the background to posting on this blog. I push through it when I’m writing, but I usually talk myself out of giving spontaneous creative gifts. I decide whatever I want to do is a dumb idea, a waste of time, and, frankly, it’s too scary to be that vulnerable and risk rejection, misunderstanding, or making someone uncomfortable.
It’s too scary to share the things that make me happy.
Working with Seligman’s book and thinking about happiness has changed things. I decided I was going to do something I love to do, share my enjoyment with others, and damn the consequences, or, better yet, completely let go of outcomes. Even if what I made gets thrown directly into the fireplace, what have I lost? My enjoyment of gathering, making, and giving remains intact. My happiness and expression of love are still free in the world instead of hidden and imprisoned in my own heart.
Seligman suggests that enduring or baseline happiness (as opposed to momentary) has much to do with our thoughts and feelings about our past, present, and future. He spends some time going over research about what comes first, our thoughts or feelings, but I won’t go into that here. What I know is that thoughts are not feelings and feelings are not thoughts, and my understanding of the science is that they’re so intimately connected neurologically and chemically we’re not yet sure which comes first or exactly how they influence each other.
As I age, I understand my past better and better. I like to think part of this is my own increasing wisdom and compassion. When we’re young, it’s easy to be judgmental, rigid, and unforgiving. It takes time and experience to gain perspective and accumulate our own history of injustices committed; not-so-great choices; and unthinking, unintended cruelties. If we are aging with grace and learning as we go, we also learn about patterns of behavior in ourselves and others. We figure out it was never all about us and the adults in our childish lives were not gods, but ordinary people.
The past is past, but our memories endure, and we’re all shaped in significant and sometimes painful ways by our childhoods. Some of us live in the past, repeating dysfunctional patterns and unable to move on. We believe our past experience determines our future experience. We know nothing will ever work out for us because we believe it never has. We’re hopelessly cursed, or doomed, or oppressed.
However, research clearly indicates that our past does not determine our future, and Seligman proposes that changing the way we think about our past can increase our present enduring state of happiness in powerful ways.
This is not easy work. In my own experience it’s a practice rather than a destination. It requires courage, strength, and determination to excavate our past, along with a good dose of honesty. It stretches our compassion. We must put aside our tendency to play the victim and take on some responsibility. I did not embark on this sort of work in order to be happy. I did it out of a desire to understand myself, others, and my experience; I wanted to heal. I also wanted peace, which is a defined component of happiness.
Shaking off the belief that our past necessarily determines our future, along with developing gratitude and forgiveness, are key in changing the way we think about our past. Seligman doesn’t write about acceptance, but for me it’s an additional important piece.
Gratitude. Forgiveness. Acceptance.
Looking back through these lenses is challenging, to say the least. Some of us look back on long years of pain and some at a few significant events, but if we are unhappy about our past it feels impossible to approach it with gratitude, forgiveness or acceptance, let alone all three. And we don’t have to, if we don’t care about being happy or healing or moving on.
I do care about those things, and I can attest to the relief of thinking about the past with gratitude for teachers and lessons learned rather than bitterness and anger. Forgiveness, though challenging, softens my tendency to curl up into a hard shell and never come out again. At the end of the day, others don’t victimize us and life is not against us. Life happens to us, and to other people, and we all churn around together, bumping into one another, sometimes with a kiss and sometimes with a knife. Life is chaotic and messy.
For me, acceptance is closely linked with forgiveness. Things happen. We all make choices. Most of us are doing the best we can most of the time. To be human is to be imperfect. If we cannot accept ourselves and others for the complex, inconsistent, occasional hot messes that we are, we are choosing to be chronically unhappy and dissatisfied, not only with life in general, but with ourselves.
The hardest work of all, for me, has been applying gratitude, forgiveness and acceptance to myself. I suspect a lot of people can relate to this. Underneath my hurt and anger with others about parts of my history are rage and abuse towards myself. As I heal that, my grievances with others have fallen away.
When I think about my past and learn how it influences my level of enduring happiness, I feel satisfied with how much work I’ve done and how far I’ve come. My goal at the time wasn’t happiness, exactly, but healing is healing, and I’m happier walking around with scars than I was with open wounds. I’m certainly much happier now than I’ve ever been before, which means I’m more peaceful, and peace was one of my goals.
The best part about working with our past is that we have all the power. We know where we’ve been and what our experience was. We can make choices about how we think about our history. We can refocus and reframe. We can consider our memories from the viewpoint of others who influenced us instead of just our own. We can forgive ourselves for what we did, what we said and who we were, and in doing so we can forgive others.
The past is over, but its influence is not gone. We can choose what that influence will be on our present and future. Will we let it drag us down and hold us back or make it part of the wind beneath our wings?
I read a quote from Instagram last weekend from wetheurban: Stop looking for happiness in the same place you lost it.
Ever since I read it, I’ve been turning it over in my mind.
To be happy is to feel or show pleasure or contentment, according to Oxford Online Dictionary.
This simple little sentence from Instagram has been like a clown car for me. Layer after layer of questions, feelings, and thoughts keep emerging as I play with it.
If we think of happiness as extrinsic, or outside ourselves,
it becomes a feeling we can find or lose. If we’re lucky, it brushes by us. If
we’re unlucky, it eludes us. If we’ve met the right person, found the right
job, are making the right amount of money, look the right way, or have the
right things, we’ll be happy. Forever.
In this view happiness is conditional, and we all have different conditions that must be met before we can feel it. Happiness is outside our power rather than within it. Once we have it, we expect to keep it as long as nothing changes, so we fear and resist change.
Another view is that happiness is intrinsic, or within us. It’s something we choose. Luck and circumstances have nothing to do with it, and nobody has the power to bring it in or take it out of our lives. Happiness is unconditional and change doesn’t take it away.
An easy way to tell which way we view happiness is to jot down a list of what makes us feel peaceful and contented. If our list is all about things or people we want, can get, can find or can lose, we view happiness as something outside ourselves.
If our list contains activities, practices and at least some pleasant relationships and connections, we are actively creating our own happiness.
The single biggest mistake I’ve made in life is believing another person can make me happy, or someone else’s happiness is my responsibility.
No, they can’t, and no, it’s not.
Our happiness is our own responsibility.
One of life’s certainties is change. Everything changes, along with our degree of pleasure and contentment in any given activity, relationship, or object. If we have no resilience, our happiness is fragile.
I talked about the concept of happiness with my partner during one of our walks. He suggested I look at Martin Seligman’s website and unearthed a book by him (we can always find a pertinent book in this house) titled Authentic Happiness.
The website is dynamic and interesting. Seligman, a Ph.D., is associated with the University of Pennsylvania and has an extensive background in positive psychology, which he continues to research.
The book looks like a typical self-help book and I wasn’t particularly attracted by the cover, but I decided it was worth taking a closer look, as I was writing this post and I’m obnoxiously thorough.
It’s fascinating. I read the first chapter, dug out a bookmark, and added it to my pile of current nonfiction reading.
Defining and gathering data on what it means to be happy is complicated, much more complicated than I realized when the Instagram quote caught my eye and inspired this post. Now I’m hooked by my curiosity and the realization of how much I don’t know about happiness. In fact, I don’t know enough to say much about it with certainty right here, right now.
The website and book are filled with self-tests on our perception of our emotional experience of happiness that are in themselves fascinating. I took the first one and rated myself as more unhappy than happy, which was disconcerting. I don’t think of myself as being unhappy. Maybe I don’t really know what happiness means. How much happiness qualifies one as a happy person?
I’ve never given my own quantity of peace and contentment much thought at all, although I pay a great deal of attention to the happiness of others.
On the other hand, because of my gratitude practice, when I do feel happy I feel it intensely and consciously, and I’m actively grateful for it. For example, just as I finished that last sentence our cat Izzy pelted up the stairs into my workspace, bounced into the room, jumped onto the laptop keyboard (I deleted her contribution to this post—don’t tell her) and started purring as though she hasn’t seen me in days. Her shining calico coat is warm silk. Her squeaks of ecstasy as I hold her and rub her cheeks and chin make me smile. She smells of sleepy feline and salmon cat food. She looks into my face with her wild amber eyes and lays the pink pads of her small white foot against my cheek.
We are happy together. Is happiness increased with sharing? Is it contagious?
When she leaves, distracted by a fly buzzing in my window, I have no sense of loss, only profound gratitude. I have no desire to capture that moment and live in it forever. I don’t want to cage happiness or hold it hostage. I’m not sure one can.
Other happy things: Laughing with friends, swimming,
dancing, music, a good book, writing, clean sheets, walking at night, rain, and
so many other things it’s ridiculous to go on.
One last thought about happiness. I have a regrettable propensity to turn it into shame, particularly when my past happiness has had to do with a relationship. As the relationship changes, which they inevitably do, and I feel I’ve “lost” my pleasure and contentment in it, I punish myself for having been such a fool as to have ever felt happy in the first place. I invalidate the real happiness I did feel because it didn’t last or was based on what I think of as my own naivete or immaturity. Not only that, I build a thick shell around myself as protection from ever feeling happy in that context again.
In essence, I destroy the happiness that was mine as well as block possible future happiness because I “lost” it before. I don’t look for happiness where I lost it. I refuse to look for it at all.
I suspect I’m not the only one in the world who does this, and I feel sad for all of us who cut ourselves off in this way from engaging with happiness. Refusing to feel happy is no guarantee we won’t feel pain, it just means our pain is not balanced with moments of peace, contentment, or joy.
I’m going to investigate what Martin Seligman has to teach. I’m intrigued. I’m also interested in how self-indulgent it feels to deliberately learn more about being happy, as though it’s a shameful thing to examine our own relationship to it. What’s up with that? When did it become inappropriate for anyone but a child to be happy?