It takes a certain amount of effort to be miserable. It simply takes a different kind of effort to be happy.
These are not Ann Patchett's exact words, but I've been reading Ann Patchett and this thought is one of my take-aways from Truth & Beauty: A Friendship.
I picked up Ann at the library a couple of weeks ago - This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage. The book was billed as a collection of essays about commitment. I absolutely loved it. I devoured every essay, and a few of them I read twice. There were portions I wanted to print in big letters and wallpaper my room with them. She writes such lovely words. I wonder how it is I had not discovered her before now.
And so my love-affair with yet another writer begins. When I returned the book of essays, I checked out one of her fiction and non-fiction books. I made it through Truth & Beauty in about three days, which is very speedy for me, as I always have at least two or three books going at a time and, except for weekends, my reading time is often limited to the few minutes I can keep my eyes open before going to bed. I will admit that I took Sunday as a sick day. I came home from "camp" (a Friday and Saturday event with my daughter) with a head cold and so threw myself upon the couch on Sunday with a box of tissues, a few pillows, a blanket, and the book.
Unlike This is a Story..., Truth & Beauty was heartbreaking in content; yet still lovely in its way with words.
It left me dwelling on the above.... on the effort of being miserable vs. being happy... I see this so often in life. (Or perhaps, more accurately, so often of Facebook, where people tend to put both their misery and happiness in words.)
Far too often I think people get into the habit of demanding that their misery be noticed.
I'm sad. I'm lonely. Nobody loves me. Why doesn't anyone appreciate me?
I wonder why it is so hard to see the problem of focusing on what brings us down. Only occasionally am I drawn to respond. I might comment or send a private note to someone who truly seems to be suffering, but more often I turn away.
Does that make me cold hearted? Does that make me a bad friend?
It's not the occasional, "Hey, I'm having a tough day," that I'm talking about. We are only human, after all. I don't mind the now-and-then harrumph, or enough already, or man life sucks! But I have friends who have truly gone through some serious pain and loss and, yet, they still manage to smile and show their sunny side as much or more often than they frown out loud.
My issue is the people who dwell there. The people who seem intent on expending all their energy on feelings misery when it seems that those feelings are primarily being generated by the person to create more misery. It's as if it were a contest and they want everyone to know that they are winning. As if collecting the "oh you poor thing" comments actually makes life any better.
Manipulating others into feeling sorry for you only confirms that you are a sad and sorry person. Trust me. It doesn't make you feel any better except maybe for that brief moment of connection when someone looks your way (or comments on your wall). In the long wrong you have done nothing to improve your state of mind or state of being.
Truth & Beauty was about a friendship... a lovely friendship that spanned twenty years. But honestly? As much as I admired Ann, and even admired her friend, to some extent, I found myself midway through the book thinking that I would never be a person, like Ann, who has that depth of kind and generous. I have many friends that I consider life-long, but I don't know that I could/would put up with the things Ann dealt with in her relationship with Lucy Grealy.
Is my bar too high? Do I have unrealistic expectations that all of my friends should be stronger? Wiser? More capable?
Perhaps the truth is that I find the line between happiness and misery too easy to cross myself. I fear tying myself to people who are so freely miserable. I've found myself in the position of purposely getting out of these relationships in the past. I let them drag me down until I finally see it, they are trying to take me with them and beginning to succeed. Maybe I am the one who is not strong enough. Maybe if I were stronger, I could spread enough sunshine for both of us.
What I wish these people could see is that dwelling on what is wrong in life makes the wrong things grow big until it is hard to see beyond the shadows they cast.
When instead, I've tackled my own grey clouds with a quest to bring a smile to someone else's face, I find that I can smile easier, as well. It works. I find happiness by focusing on good. To dwell on them, especially publicly, where I get feedback, only makes them last longer and grow darker.
I don't want to be a person who runs from people who are in pain. I know that there are times in life when we simply have to embrace what is, even when it's hard and/or sad beyond reason. But I also don't want to be a person who exerts all my effort on chosing misery.
I hope that I am wise enough to see the difference.