Many years ago, I read a book by Dennis Prager entitled “Happiness Is A Serious Problem” It asserted that we had a “moral obligation” to be happy or at least not to impose our pain, foul moods, or complaints on others. It counseled to be happy until something made you sad instead of waiting for something to make you happy. Happiness, it warned, required hard work.
I used to think I was a pretty good practitioner of happiness. I “worked hard” to be grateful, hopeful, and positive in the face of all the adversity that came crashing into our lives in the hope of keeping “unhappiness” at bay. Even now, when nestled in the cocoon of family and friends, I thought I could successfully maintain my attitude through an unspoken code imbued with understanding and encouragement. When asked “How are you?” I assumed it meant “How are you (under the circumstances)” and when I responded “Great”, I trusted they knew it meant “Great (considering)”. I had no fear of burdening my family and friends with my pain because they had witnessed it.
Meeting new people however, made me panic. My heart would start beating rapidly, my hands got clammy, perspiration ran down my neck and back. I begged the universe to withhold the question but there was no way of avoiding it. At some point I was asked the most difficult question in the world. The only question with the power to force me to betray my obligation to be happy and make me impose my pain on others. That question – how many children do you have?
At first, I was careful to avoid the subject of children all together by focusing on career and travel, but it made me feel shallow to avoid talking about their children in an effort to mask what had happened to mine. Then, I pretended I was being called away – “oh look my husband needs me” – it was dismissive and rude – not me. I attempted limiting the conversation to the two older ones but that left me feeling like Peter denying Christ. In my last foray into this awful question, I blamed the questioner “Well, since you’ve asked, I had three boys, two living” I thought it was a fine answer until I noticed the hesitation on their face. My answer had generated another question, “How did he die?” It was not something they asked, but I could sense their curiosity, children don’t just die, something happens. I reluctantly added he had cancer and steered the conversation away from the sadness as tears threatened to burst forward. I was secretly congratulating myself for handling the matter well when I began to fret about something else – had I been smiling when I spoke of my loss?
I understand now that I was momentarily paralyzed by what I believed to be mutually exclusive positions. While I did not want to impose my pain, I also did not want to judged as being “too happy”. The fact is that I am too happy and too sad at the same time. I am the happiest I’ve ever been because I am finally learning what it is like to live free of fear and I am the saddest I’ve ever been because my greatest fear came true. I had lost friends and acquaintances my age in childhood and prayed never to experience the pain of those parents. I worried about my kids, most often worrying that I wasn’t worried enough. When the unthinkable happened to me, I woke up the following day and took a breath, then a step followed by another. One day I found myself smiling, then laughing. I realized that although I had every reason to be unhappy, sad, angry and bitter, happiness was possible – I simply had to choose it. What I never expected is that the choice would have its own reward, evidence of Gus’ presence and unstoppable love.
We do have a moral obligation to be happy but not for others – for ourselves. Others benefit from our happiness sure, but in the end they must also make the choice. The next time someone asks me the most difficult question in the world – I think I will answer – “I have three wonderful boys, one of them is an angel”.