Once upon a time....
And they lived happily ever after...
I loved those fairy tales as a kid. Everyone waving wands and poofing here and there with spells, slaying evil witches and giants, wearing seven-league boots (whatever those were), and generally living happily ever (except for the few dead casualties).
I remember lying in bed at night and knowing—just knowing—that if I believe hard enough, and I wish at just the right time, I would get those three elusive wishes everyone seemed to be getting in my fairy tales. And I knew exactly what my first two wishes would be. The ability to fly and to be invisible at will. It was always the last wish that made me crazy. I knew that until I don't have that third wish firmly embedded in my heart, no fairy is gonna waste her time on me. But that third wish had to be as perfect as the first two and I just didn't know what it could be. Go back in time? Read minds? Travel at will? Be effortlessly brilliant? It was excruciating not being able to decide.
If I would know what my third wish would be, then I too could live happily ever after.
As a therapist, clients expect me to not only know what perfect happiness is, but to help them get it too.
So I think about what I thought was happiness growing up.
If I would be the best at sports in camp, then I would be happy. Second best to that Schon kid was making me miserable. Why did she ever have to come to my camp altogether?
If I would be as smart as Tsivi, who wrote a perfect essay on cockroaches, or like Miriam Rusi who aced calculus, then I would be happy.
If I could dance like Frieda or Raizy, performing on stage, then for sure I could be happy.
I wished I could be as funny as Rutty, or dramatic as Shiffy; or have such cool parents like EL (both her parents were deaf so it was so exciting to hang out at her house, with those cool inventions, and simultaneous conversations going on around the Shabbos table), then I could be happy.
I loved Shalva's hair, and Chany's handwriting, and Devoiry's basement.
Any one of those things, I tell you, and I would have been happy.
Are you laughing at me?
I'm laughing at myself too. Although I really believed as a teen that any one of those things was THE key to happiness.
Don't ask me how, but I eventually grew up, married and had children.
I would watch my daughter, Malka, how she woke up smiling in the morning, and heard music in her head all day, her body moving to a rhythm that I could not feel.
“You know,” I informed my husband, “that Malka was that kid in school I would simply hate. You know, the kind of girl who loved everything and everyone. Who thought her siblings and parents and class and teachers and bedroom and hair and voice and friends were perfect.”
As a teenager, I tried to grab that elusive happiness that melted in my hands frustratingly as I would attempt to close my fist over it, like the snow crystals sticking to mittened hands. My daughter had no need to grasp or grab anything as contentment flowed in and out of her as a sponge soaks up water that leaves no pore empty.
Webster's Dictionary uses the word happiness to describe contentment but I do not believe they are related at all. Happiness is a single state of pleasure, a momentary feeling dependent on externals; contentment is a way of life, of attitudes and values that flow from within.
Happiness is about what we can accomplish, attain, achieve, acquire. Happiness is the prize of our accomplishments, , achievements, attainments, acquisitions. So if we are to be happy, we need to get enough of that stuff. Any less of our ideals, and we are unhappy.
Here's the problem.
Say that Schon kid left camp and I was once again best at sports in Camp Faygah (oooh, I'm dating myself!), would I have been happy? I doubt it. I would have more likely have been bored as I would have had no one to compete with.
And if I would have been onstage performing, would I have been happy?
I doubt it as I did get onstage a number of times, and only thought how I wished my part was bigger or funnier or more exciting.
I had gorgeous hair and other girls were jealous of my cool parents and maybe calculus wasn't my thing, but what made me think writing an essay on cockroaches was the ultimate in happiness in ninth grade? My teacher's concept of writing? I don't think writing about cockroaches would go over very well in a Binah column, although Tsivi definitely used her gift for non-fiction eventually to write magnificent children's books.
So once we get that stuff we think will make us happy, the awful part is that we don't stay happy for too long. We want more stuff.
Happiness is not a permanent state of being or a finished product that after we have it, we kind of settle in and say, “Okay, I have happiness so I have time for other things now.”
It's more likely we will say, “I thought that will make me happy, but I guess it didn't so I need to figure out what will.”
Here's the thing
Funny thing about happiness is that even though it is totally inconsistent , ephemeral, and undependable, we treat it as a hot commodity that must be gained at all costs. And even weirder, we judge the success of our lives by our ability to achieve it even though it is in its essence impossible to achieve for any length of time!
If the object of our happiness is removed, we are left unhappy. The performance is over, the roller coaster ride is finished, the praise is withheld, the gorgeous mass is stuffed under a sheitel.
Or, if the object remains, the happiness ultimately fizzles out. The performances are getting repetitious and a drag on our time, the roller coaster is beginning to make me nauseous, her constant praise is putting major pressure me, and my hair is so long it's giving me a headache.
But contentment, untethered to anything outside of us, firmly anchored within us, remains constant, irrelevant to the ebb and flow of life that yields both pain and pleasure.
I have come a long way from that teenager that thought happiness could be bought, bargained, begged, or borrowed.
Contentment is about priorities and readjusting them to fit the situation so that disappointment doesn't have a toehold in my life. Contentment is about acceptance and finding the good in what exists right now. It's about hard work and finding the joys in what I do have. It's by building self trust so that I know what is important and letting go of ideals that are not mine.
Contentment is raising my daughter who smiles when she wakes in the morning safe and secure in her family, knowing the music she hears in her head is the music of a contented home, and the rhythm of her life—though different from mine—beats in tandem to mine.
And they lived contentedly ever after.
It just doesn't sound as good, you know?
But it feels much better.
Originally published in Binah Magazine as a feature article
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