Sunday, February 13, 2011

Abe's Advice

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


  1. Well said, Lisabet.

    Darkness doesn't come easily to me in my writing because, quite honestly, I haven't experienced all that much.

    Many years ago, my father, an unpublished author advised me, upon knowing I was dabbling in this craft, "write what you know."

    I think sometimes people get notions of what is "right" for storytelling, and of course these reflect in their tastes. But as writers, we need to answer to our inner voice. Call it being true to ourselves (to some extent this comes back to the discussion of cliches.)

    Should we stretch ourselves? Absolutely, and we should take chances, but the heart of it should be honest and set out to find readers who want to read what we write. To create characters and situations that resonate with us, and hopefully them.

    Maybe this is idealistic, but I believe in it wholly.

    To that end, I relate to your bookstore credit story. Been there, done that. Why dwell on something that we cannot change? It took me many years to adopt this stance in life, but I am truly a happier person because I have.

  2. Hello, Craig,

    Thank you for your validation. I don't really know whether there's a relationship between personal suffering and the depth of one's fiction. If there is, well, I guess I'd choose being happy over creating great literature. Shallow of me, perhaps. On the other hand, I do believe that a well-lived life, full of love, peace, contentment and compassion, is itself a work of art.


  3. Lisabet - you never shy away from the big topics. I love that about you! HAPPINESS - I agree with Abe Lincoln, it's a choice, but a choice made far easier for people like me who were born with a more upbeat, resilient, personality. I agree with you, too, that it can be transitory, based on circumstances and choice. I feel sad for your Mom that she somehow got swayed into a more unhappy state and just stayed there. That must have been torture for her and you.

    Recently I read about a group of islanders who were uprooted to a more mainland location. Many of them became depressed and unhappy. Things weren't familiar, expectations were perhaps higher, circumstances changed and it changed their view of happiness. There was even a Happiness Project I read about once, so elusive is this thing called happiness for many.

    Happiness vs. darkness in our characters and stories - I like complicated, fleshed out characters and stories with lots of twists, turns and surprises.
    One of my writing instructors at UC Berkeley said it best I think: there are no good or bad, right or wrong endings, just inevitable ones. I'm not afraid of darkness in my writing. I think it scared me a bit in the beginning but life has taught me so many lessons, as has just writing a lot, it toughens you up,
    allowing you to go deeper with your characters.

    I will end commenting about anorexia, which you mentioned in your intro. My first MA in Clinical Psych was spent with anorexic girls in a clinic in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I was only in my early twenties, not much older than these teenagers. I wanted to love their bodies back to life. I can close my eyes and still see every bone in their backs protruding out of their skeletal frames. Their bodies were their prisons. I am so happy you were able to break away from that to lead your exceptionally brilliant life.

    Happy Sunday, Lisabet...

  4. Lisabet,

    thank you for such an open post. Happiness may well be a choice but most days, the point at which that choice should or could be made seems to slide past unnoticed.

    Your example with anger speaks to this. This kind of wrath takes us prisoner but we put up no resistence, sometimes even wearing our shackles with pride.

    Perhaps anorexia gets to the heart of this darkness. I think love is a prerequisite for happiness and self-love is the foundation on which it stands.

    Thank you for digging into this topic and me a new perspective.

  5. Lisabet -

    . . . you're too nice to your characters. Really.

    Having said that, I find it surprising you would say you haven't experienced darkness. Hell, you've told some things about your life and you've experienced more darkness than most people. But somehow you have emerged undarkened. I think of our conversations off list about "the object of my Mook". Now there is someone has experienced some serious darkness, and her faith in God is not only undimmed but almost saintly. So Lincoln is certainly right about this, its the position we take towards the dark that makes us happy or unhappy.

    It seems to me that you have managed - in spite of a generous portion of suffering doled out to you - to have lived an authentic life rich in experience. MAybe this pushes back the darkness somewhat. I think its the nature of evil to pass away. When I look back on my own life, I can point to periods of the most intense spiritual suffering, but I remember the experience mainly as a concept. I don't remember the pain anymore.

    Maybe that's how it is for you. Maybe the harder question is - is happiness the highest good in life? Are there things we can learn from looking deep in the dark corners?


  6. I don't think that being happy keeps an author from writing introspectively. I also don't think that because a person chooses to be happy that darkness hasn't been in their lives. I can relate to a mother who is never happy. I've been through dark days dealing with depression. Now I choose to be happy. I do things I enjoy, not what is expected of me. I have down days, but they now last a day usually. So be happy. It sounds like you've earned it.

  7. All of these comments remind me of a Hemingway quote, something to the effect that we are all broken but some of us are stronger in the broken places...

  8. Hi, Mary,

    I don't agree completely about a happy personality being something you're born with. I know there are genetic influences on temperament, but from what I can see, experience is a far more important determinant then heredity.

    About anorexia - I've thought a lot about those years (which were very valuable to me - I might never have had therapy had I not become anorexic, and I suspect that I'd be far less happy than I am). My take is that anorexia is fundamentally about fear, especially fear of losing control. Food is the demon that will strip your control, your power, your purity, away. When I realize this, it seems all the more bizarre that later I was drawn to the submissive side of BDSM.

  9. Hello, Mike,

    I'm glad that you feel I did your topic justice. I was wondering if I could!

    Looking forward to the rest of the week!

  10. Hey, Garce,

    I'm really surprised to hear you say that you think I've experienced darkness and suffering. I suppose I could point to dark experiences, but overall I feel as though I've lived a charmed life.

    Is happiness the highest good in life? Excellent question. I think I'd probably say no - I'd assign that role to compassion... although the two are related.

  11. Thanks, She,

    Depression is very real, and a serious danger. Many people don't realize this. That's why I sometimes worry about what must seem like my Pollyanna-ish attitude toward life. I'm not trying to negate the reality of suffering. I guess what I'm trying to say is that with some work, suffering can be turned into something of benefit.

  12. Wonderful post! And so true, re: making up your mind to be happy. Sometimes it's hard to see through the fog, but it can be done.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.