I got on my knees and prayed tonight. Like legitimately fell crashing down to the worse-off part of my body (after my heart, clearly), and sobbed into my mattress. And as I unloaded 31 years worth of you-name-it, my dog came up behind me and started sniffing my butt, and it occurred to me that he really is my spirit animal.
He likes assholes as much as I do.
I have had sort of a breakthrough the last few weeks. I’ve always been that person that pushes people around me to do what they love, because I figured out very young that the secret to life is to be as happy as much as humanly possible, yet some time ago, I seemed to have lost what that means for me. On the surface, I have maintained pretty well, but what does that really mean? I went to grad school immediately after college and plowed through, continued with a career that I’m passionate about and am connected to in a personal way, and have managed to stay above water enough to take care of myself physically and prioritize my physical health.
Notice that I just said, “physically” twice.
I mean I guess for someone who has a disease more rare than finding pierogies in trail mix, it probably is warranted that I care so much about my body. It’s not even in a superficial way (usually…), it’s more about the fact that it hurts to do basic things, and in a world where you’re nothing if not “normal”, I just work at being able to grab groceries and get dressed for work.
But along with spending so much time not paying attention to your mental state comes the deterioration of it. I believe I’m quick-witted, motivated and determined, but it can feel daunting, even considering how much it really matters, to take time out of your already exhausting day to fix your life.
Fix. Your. Life.
It’s amazing how three little words can be so powerful when you put them against a white background, yes?
Let’s break that down for a second. First, I’ll tackle “fix” – fix? Like in what way? When it comes to your life, there are no instructions, there is no diagram of what the project looks like when you’re done, and it’s not like I can go into a hardware store and find a tool dedicated to this specific job. Fixing something requires a lot of moving parts, like identifying what’s wrong in the first place, what things would look like if they were OK, and finally, how to get from the former to the latter.
Then there’s the word, “your.” This one isn’t usually difficult for me because I have always naturally been a very compassionate and giving person. It’s kind of a strange imbalance because I really dislike being around people for extended periods of time, but I am abnormally interested in aspects of their lives. For example, some of the best starts to my day are when I’m in a cab with a driver who has had a particularly fascinating story. I like making people feel special by expressing a real desire to learn about them. But does that mean I want to spend time in a room full of people and interact with them for hours on end? Not at all. But the 23 minutes it takes to get to work is just enough time for me to have a substantial conversation and dip out right at the point where enough’s enough.
The problem that I face with, “your” is when I AM the “your.” I don’t use the words “my” or “me” or “I” half as often as I should, and so much of what I’m committing my energy towards is building others up, pushing them to reach their potential, and focusing on how to get them there. But where am I in all of those scenarios? Not fixing or youring.
And then finally, there’s “life.”
The beauty of living alone is always having the ability to sit around my apartment and let my thoughts wander. I was enjoying this the other night when it occurred to me that life is actually really hard. People say, “life is hard” in one variation or another every day, but I’ve never really examined the truth behind it. I began to analyze it and all of these things started hovering around me, like how difficult it is to be healthy, stay healthy, find a job, let alone a job you like, make friends, keep friends, lose friends, earn money, invest money, invest in relationships, heal from relationships, etc. And then I thought about juggling it all in the air at one time, trying to figure out the right percentage of each that warrants your attention in a way that doesn’t screw up the entire equation.
And even if you are lucky enough to figure out how to successfully accomplish the list above and end up with a reasonable life, “reasonable” isn’t “great” and sometimes it isn’t even “good.” It’s just the result of things falling into place, in whatever spot they land, usually without your control or consent. Like right now, I live in Manhattan with my dog and I go to work every day. I could have moved to NJ or Long Island – I just wanted to be closer to my family when I made that decision. I didn’t go out and buy a dog or rescue one from a shelter – I decided to help out a friend, which turned into me acquiring a new pet. And the career I have was a result of getting a job after college that made it possible to pay my rent. I ended up loving what I was doing and I still stand by that, but being good at and passionate about something are much different than doing something every day that truly gets you jazzed. I didn’t intentionally go out into the world looking for work in healthcare. It’s the job I got. The career sort of chose me.
Since I started to realize after being hospitalized and almost getting evicted this year that I wasn’t doing much more than getting by, I decided to make a conscious effort to try to break down the things that make me happy, and more than that, bring me joy. I’ll admit, when I started on this journey, I don’t think I even realized that there was a difference between the two, but after hitting some sweet spots with some of the choices I’ve made, it’s become more apparent to me that the two ideas are miles apart.
I think happiness can be a few different things. It can be perception from what’s learned as being “happy”, like a kid growing up in a home with a lot of things vs. a lot of people, or scrolling through Instagram pictures that exist on everyone’s pages and comparing what your life looks like vs. what someone else’s looks like. It can also be fear-based, which is what I experience, because I’ve had so many bad things happen to me in my life that I feel like if I’m not grateful for days that are arguably average, I’ll be struck with days that are bad, and wish I had appreciated things differently . So I often associate consistency or lack of difficulty with happiness, because in my mind, it still beats the alternative.
Finally, I think there is true happiness, but I think the real feeling behind this last version is motivated by joy more than anything else. To me, joy is what you feel when you are experiencing something that is so undeniably you, like riding a roller coaster feels to thrill-seekers, or when a green thumb sees the beautiful garden blooming that she spent hours planting. I imagine it’s the feeling tattoo-enthusiasts get when they get new ink, and maybe the feeling a fisherman has when he feels something tugging on his line (and also when he catches a fish, HO!)
But I digress…
The way I am trying to think about it is by picturing a board of buttons behind my chest wall that exists, where each button represents something different. Something magical. Like “joy buttons” that get pressed when I do something that warms my soul and radiates comfort and excitement throughout my body. Playing the drums again has given me a glow that I haven’t seen on my face since the “Bottle of Wine for Breakfast” days after my divorce. It’s something my Dad says he hears in my voice over the phone, and I can tell by the way I’m smiling when I watch the playbacks of my videos that it’s coming from my stomach, not from my head.
I think the best way I can explain what I’m saying is that when you’re happy, going through the motions and thinking about a state of mind, the smile is being pulled from your mouth upwards by your frame of reference about what happiness is. Joy, on the other hand, is when you feel so elated that it explodes from within you and pushes the smile up from from your gut to your mouth. Happiness, like the analogy, feels more forced, while Joy is there to provide a good foundation.
Now, with all of this said, it occurred to me that if I have 8 buttons on this internal grid and just one of them can make me feel such delight, imagine the gratification and pleasure I’d feel if I had them all tagged with something special. What if every time I opened my eyes in the morning, there was a way to push at least 4 of them before even starting my day? Or better yet, is it possible to have them all pushed at the same time? I can’t say I know that answer, but I DO know that trying to accomplish that sounds way more rewarding than settling for being happy in a way that’s safe and socially suggested.
Life can be many things. But one thing it isn’t is pre-determined. You can be dealt a bad hand and choose to trade your cards in for some new ones. Or you can survive with what you have and hope for the best. Either way, both options start with “you”, and the first step to creating the life you want is understanding that it will be your decisions that ultimately paint your picture into a reality.
Don’t forget to add your happy trees.