Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Whose Responsibility is My Happiness?

Earlier this week, a friend of mine shared the article "10 Things Happy Families Do Differently." The picture with it caught my eye, and I was in a browsy mood, so I checked it out.

One particular statement from this article has stayed with me since I read it: "Everyone takes responsibility for their own happiness."

Now, I'm not usually one who gets a lot of out people's pithy lists of tips for how to make life all better. And my response to this was not along the lines of "Gee, thanks. I'll try that." But seeing this concept expressed in just this way in this context some something of a little naru hodo moment for me.

Two memories stood out as I've thought about this. The first involved the formation of my sense about where happiness comes from. And the fact that, in this formation, happiness was a commodity for other people. This happiness was supposed to come from me.

Oh, I would never have explicitly articulated it this way in my earlier years, but growing up in a post-alcoholic-divorced home taught me that it was my job to make the people around me happy. (Or stated conversely, everyone's unhappiness was my fault.) I decided that the easiest way for me to try to bring happiness was to "not bother anyone" and so I perfected my ability to lay no burden on others. Still, of course, others weren't happy. My eventual conclusion: my mere existence was the problem.

It never really entered into my calculations, this notion of where my happiness was supposed to come from.

The second memory involved my children when they were very small. On one particular night a common bedtime scene was being played out where my tired daughter was crying over some tiny nothing, consuming all my ability to be present to her and calm her so she could go to sleep. At that moment, my son entered her room, seemingly totally oblivious to the emotional drama unfolding, and asked me to intervene with some need of his that involved something like finding just the right lego to make his creation look just right. I can still see exactly where I was when this thought formulated inside me. It was sarcastic at first, but the reality of what I said impacted me shortly thereafter : "Boy, I wish I could consider my needs so dang important that I could overlook everything around me to get them met!"

My son did nothing wrong; he merely had no sense of timing (at age 5 or 6 or whatever). I, on the other hand, had a gut instinct that needs and desires are always supposed to be sacrificed on the pyre of someone else's issues.

In 1993, right after I came into the Church, I went on pilgrimage to the Holy Land with a group. In one of the many gift shops I saw what struck me as the most beautiful t-shirt I had ever seen. I literally gasped as I said, "Oh, I want one of those!" Now, this is not a normal comment coming from me because I don't care about shopping and care even less about "stuff." It was the beauty of the metallic gold embellishments that made me exclaim this in something like awe. I'll never forget an older woman from my group saying to me, "Well, you just go ahead and get it, then." I think I triggered something in her maternal heart that prompted her to "give me permission" to buy it. I did, and I still have it. Perhaps it is telling that this was an unusually memorable experience from my earlier days of seeing and pursuing something that brought me spontaneous happiness. I don't remember making choices like this on any regular basis until recent years.

Pursuing my own happiness used to leave me with a sense of guilt. If it was my job to get out of everyone's way so they could be happy, being as small and non-existent as possible, well, it didn't make sense for me to be filled up and big with happiness. Geez, the more I write about this the more diabolical it sounds.

Each person has the vocation, the duty, and the need to pursue happiness, beatitude, God. It is true that no one finds it alone, in isolation from others. But I am responsible for my pursuit of God, and you are responsible for yours. I am not responsible for yours, although mine actually can inspire yours, and yours, mine.

Of course children need adult wisdom to learn what will mess up their pursuit of happiness. Or better put, children and adults need biblical and saintly wisdom to learn how to pursue true happiness. Without it, we end up indulging ourselves with idolatry and filling ourselves up with not-god, at the expense of other things and/or objectified people whom we appoint to be god to us and make us happy. It ain't gonna happen. Nothing other than God satisfies the quest for happiness. Yes, created things can help us; we require their help. But idolatry not only leaves us unfulfilled, it actually empties us of whatever happiness we have found.

Personal responsibility for happiness means that I seek truth, beauty and goodness with all my heart, through every aspect of my life, and that I open my entire life to interact with the One I find. Yeah, I imagine if everyone in a family did that it would make for a happy life together indeed.

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