Sometimes happiness isn’t a choice.

January 28, 2016 | Life in My 50s

My Life Lines column, running in the current issue of Catholic New York:

My hands look older than my mother’s hands ever did. That’s what I was thinking at Mass last Sunday when I should have been focused on more spiritual pursuits. But I couldn’t get past the sudden, albeit not surprising, realization that I am aging far beyond anything my mother experienced in her 47 years. Thanks to a couple of small-but-disturbing age spots and prominent veins, my hands remind me that life is moving at breakneck speed and I might want to take stock of things.

I don’t think the timing of my observation is coincidental. Although I’m not one to make annual resolutions, I do have a penchant for long, somewhat depressing strolls down memory lane at this time of year, meandering mentally through all the things I have not yet done, or didn’t do so well. For the people (like myself) who dwell in darkness, God’s great light only seems to penetrate so far.

We darkness-dwellers can be suffocating to those lucky enough to live in the light. We seem to drain the life out of everything, like the soul-sucking Dementors of “Harry Potter” fame, but the truth is that this is how God made us. “Happiness is a choice,” I read on Facebook and Pinterest with some regularity. Baloney. While some people are hardwired for joy, others are not. For us happiness is a constant longing, a place that is always 10 steps ahead of us. “Choosing” happiness doesn’t change who we are at our core any more than choosing warm sunshine will change a gray January day in upstate New York into the tropics.

This reality was driven home for me this past year when I watched from a distance as my dearest childhood friend battled breast cancer. Never during that year did she seem angry or hopeless, dark or desperate. Her game face was always one of optimism and opportunity, great expectations and living in the moment. I’m sure she had to work hard to stay in that place, but she began from a baseline of happiness; she is a remarkably upbeat person.

When she was declared cancer-free last month, I sent her a note telling her how glad I was and at the same time how sorry, because in the midst of her crisis I had been consumed with worries far less significant than cancer, so much so that although I prayed and prayed for her good health, I never did see my way clear to make the drive to see her, or do much of anything else in terms of support.

My aging hands brought all of this to the fore. As I looked at skin that is changing from vibrant and glowing to translucent and lined, I wondered if I would see similar interior changes if I were able to peer into my own soul. Had my ability to bounce back from a sad place lost some of its elasticity, just as skin does as it ages? Had my cynical-but-hopeful foundation begun to crack?

I’d like to think our soul doesn’t work that way. That maybe as our exterior self ages, our interior self soaks up all the vitality. I always assumed age would bring interior peace. Like happiness, that isn’t a matter of making a simple decision, like choosing a pair of shoes. Lasting peace and happiness require difficult interior work and critical exterior support for some of us. And sometimes despite our best—and prayerful—efforts, those much-desired things stay slightly out of reach.

Moving from darkness to light, sadness to joy is not a matter of choosing to be something other than who God created us to be but rather of refusing to buy into the “happiness-is-a-choice” myth and accepting our own truth, even if it comes only in a shade of blue.


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