By Lisabet Sarai
"Most people are about as happy as they make up their minds to be" ~ Abraham Lincoln
I first encountered this quote when I was a member of the Twelve Step program Overeaters Anonymous. Twelve-steppers love brief maxims like this, sayings that are easy to digest and remember. They're something to hold on to when you're feeling lost and desperate, ready to jettison everything (your sobriety, your job, even your life) if it will just make the pain go away. At the time I was still struggling with anorexia, waking to anxiety attacks and palpitations, playing dangerous games with my food in the struggle to retain a balance between physical health and psychological comfort. It was not, by any stretch of the imagination, the happiest period in my life.
Nevertheless, the saying made some sense to me, even then. It helped me to stop focusing on the demons clamoring in my head and look around at my world. I was indeed fortunate. To start with, I hadn't died as a result of my obsession with losing weight. I had made it through college, despite the odds. I'd been accepted to a top grad school with a full scholarship, had left my parents behind and gone off to live on my own in a strange, fascinating city. New people had entered my life. New ideas and opportunities beckoned. If I could just let go of the fear, I might actually be able to enjoy myself. At some level, it was up to me.
Now, thirty plus years later, I am completely convinced of the truth of Lincoln's statement. Happiness does not depend on external circumstances. It's a habit of mind, a mode of perception. My mother, as I've shared before on this blog, was never comfortable or content. For some reason, probably rooted in her childhood, she expected to be unhappy. Her many accomplishments she dismissed as trivial. Her few disappointments loomed large in her mind as proof that the universe had cheated her. She had decided that she was going to be miserable and so of course she was.
I had an annoying experience the other day. There's a used bookstore not far from my apartment that I would visit once or twice a month. They'd buy back books you brought in and give you a credit that could be applied to new purchases. In December I carried in quite a pile and received a credit for $12. I didn't have time to book-shop that day, so I stuffed the voucher in my wallet. Last week I dropped by, intending to use the credit to beef up our bookshelves, which were looking a bit sparse. I discovered that the shop was under new management and congratulated the young women who'd bought it. Then I spent almost an hour browsing and picking out new books to buy. When I brought them to the register, however, the new proprietors informed me that they would not honor the credit from the previous owner. After arguing and pleading, to no avail, I finally stormed out of the store, vowing to never return and to spread the word of their customer-unfriendly policy all over the Internet.
I stood on the side walk, my heart pounding, so upset I was practically in tears. It wasn't just the money that bothered me, or their unfairness. I was most unhappy about the time I'd spent book shopping, time that I could have devoted to writing or marketing, time that was forever lost. I tried taking deep breaths to calm myself, but angry thoughts kept intruding. Just wait till I get home, I grumbled to myself. I'll get on Facebook and my other forums and trash the bitches!
Then it hit me. I was making myself unhappy. I could choose to let the whole issue drop, if I really wanted to. Just forget it, put it behind me. The time was gone in any case. Nothing I did would change that. Instead of wasting more time on vindictiveness, I should simply go home and put the time I did have to good use.
I'm not trying to set myself up as some kind of saint or anything. I have my unhappy periods like everyone else, though they tend to pass fairly quickly. I do sometimes wonder whether I'd manage to hold on to my conviction if I were less lucky. What if I contracted terminal cancer? What if our apartment was gutted by fire and we lost everything we owned? What if my extreme myopia actually resulted in blindness, as my doctors have warned is possible? In the face of misfortune, would I still be able to choose happiness and make it real?
Of course I don't know. Still, I have numerous concrete examples in my life the demonstrate how thought creates reality. I'd like to think that I'd remember those cases if misfortune struck. Only time will tell.
One of the questions Mike asked when he proposed this topic was "Does happy make good fiction?" Sometimes I think that my personal happiness leads me to write fiction that is superficial or ephemeral. I don't have a deep well of angst to draw upon in my work. Garce tells me that I'm "too nice to my characters". Darkness doesn't come easily to me in my writing because, quite honestly, I haven't experienced all that much.
There's a common notion that you have to suffer to create, that great art is the product of personal pain. I'm not sure that I buy that, but I can sort of see the logic. How can you write of heart-rending conflicts if you have not experienced them?
Well, maybe I can't write truly tortured characters. Perhaps, though, I can capture true joy. That might not qualify as great fiction - but if it helps my readers toward happiness, I can't complain.
"If you are not happy here and now, you never will be." ~Taisen Deshimaru