How to Crack a Smile

>> Monday, March 3, 2008

Don’t worry -- be happy.

But I don’t want to.

Whoever said it was easy to be happy didn’t know what it was like to live inside my gray matter. Most of the time I’m fairly content. But there are times, weeks, months even, when contentment is nowhere to be found and happiness is a pipe dream away. (By the way, what’s a “pipe dream”?)

So how do we feed our well-being? How do we generate inner feelings of happiness?

Michele from The Squawkery challenged us to make a list of things we do to feed our well-being -- especially during times of extreme stress. I was chatting with a coworker the other day, and we both agreed that we drop the activities we need the most during those times. We eat poorly. We stop exercising. We don’t take time to quiet ourselves, slow the pace, and enjoy our lives.

We reasoned, then, that if we make a list of things to do to “feed ourselves” (and try in earnest to do them) we’d naturally function better -- our well-being would be well-fed. Women’s magazines are filled with ideas. Buy fresh flowers. Get a pedicure. Take a long drive and listen to your favorite music. Cook your favorite meal. Watch a movie. And on and on.

So I made a list. I filled The List with things that were good for me:

- Drink unsweetened iced tea instead of Pepsi
- Substitute whole grains for the other stuff
- Eat fresh fruit
- Walk/jog each day
- Hike
- Meditate

I filled The List with things I enjoy:

- Listen to music (Pat Benator, Missing Persons, Metallica, White Stripes)
- Eat satisfying food (Linguini with clams in marinara, Caesar salad with anchovy dressing, Girl Scout cookies)
- Pamper my body (Back massages, hair brushings, foot rubs)
- Indulge my fantasy-self (Buffy DVD Box Set)

I even filled The List with ideas straight from the Women’s Magazines:

- Buy Fresh flowers
- Get a Pedicure
- Take a bubble bath

And then I looked at The List and thought bullshit.

I know that when I’m really stressed and blue, I’m probably not going to do any of these things. I would look at such a list and probably think fuck you. Not until I’m unbearably stressed and miserable would I finally set out to seek a solution out of sheer desperation.

That’s when I realized: We choose not to feed ourselves.

I know this because, after all the magazines and lists, after all these words and advice, our well-being-o-meters should be through the roof. Feeding ourselves should be second nature by now. Hell, we’ve been reading Women’s Day, Redbook and Cosmo since kindergarten, after all.

This became clear to me the other night at dinner. Elizabeth was overwrought. (I could tell you the reason -- she didn’t have two forks, we weren’t wearing pink -- it really doesn’t matter.) The point is, she was upset -- crying, running out of the room, throwing herself onto her bed, upset.

Finally she pulled herself together enough to return to the table. Because we love her and wanted to digest our food and spare our aching eardrums, we tried to cheer her up. We counted slowly, daring her not to crack a smile, but it didn’t work. We made silly faces. No reaction. I made fart jokes. Nada.

Finally she said, “I don’t want to smile.”

When she said that, I could only think, Yes, I know that feeling.

Why? Why do we resist happiness sometimes? Some days we just don’t want to feel better. We want to linger in our dark places and we resist the light with every ounce of our being. Then we often feel worse because we’re not supposed to linger in darkness. We’re supposed to want to get the Hell out -- to be happy and enjoy life. We’re supposed to see the beauty that’s all around us, to be healed by our children, and to appreciate the cool breath of life.

But sometimes we don’t.

Then we feel even worse. We feel flawed. We feel inadequate. Sometimes our friends try to help by reminding us to be grateful. At least you’re not living in a third world country, worrying how to feed your children. At least you have a home and money and healthy kids. At least you have...

That’s all true, but then we feel more like shit because not only do we fail to recognize what is plainly clear to everyone else -- that our lives are GREAT! -- but we also imagine that our friends and family are judging us for our blindness and inability to buck up. They’re impatient with our insecurities, perhaps anxious for us to return to a fun-loving, confident, less-needy version of ourselves.

More darkness descends.

A week ago, my Dark Machine was hard at work. I felt very low-energy and tired. I was depressed. I struggled to come up with an answer. Is it my job? My children? My marriage? Is it my inability to deal with my family; my inability to stay in the present? Why am I feeling this way? Why? WHY?

Nothing I came up with seemed right. None of it rang true. I was grasping at straws and I knew it.

However, that morning as I cleaned the breakfast dishes, a little voice inside my head asked a simple question: Is it possible that some sort of physical problem is causing you to feel bad today?

Hold on.

I thought, Is it possible that I’m just not feeling well? Is it possible that my energy is low for some physical reason -- a cold, perhaps? Two weeks ago, I adjusted my birth control pills and perhaps my body needs time to adjust and I’m in some sort of prolonged PMS zone. Perhaps my body doesn’t respond well to the early morning pancakes we ate. Perhaps my “biorhythms” are out of whack. I mean, is it possible that this isn’t some sort of character flaw and that I’m not a horrible person? Is that possible?


And by the way, inner voice -- thanks for asking!

In that moment, something small changed. Perhaps it was the mere kindness of the question, the friendliness of it, or the love. I’m not sure. But whatever it was, I felt better -- not kicking up my heals, singing on a mountain better. But better. Crack-a-smile better.

I’m currently reading a book by Elizabeth Gilbert: Eat, Pray, Love. When she’s very depressed and lonely she conducts a conversation with herself in her journal. There is her angry, depressed, dark voice, and there is this other voice that comes from some mysterious place. During one particularly dark night, The Voice responded:

I’m here. I love you. I don’t care if you need to stay up crying all night long, I will stay with you... There’s nothing you can ever do to lose my love. I will protect you until you die, and after your death I will still protect you. I am stronger than Depression and I am braver than Loneliness and nothing will ever exhaust me.


Later, after she slept, she felt better.

I’m not sure what this Voice is, or where it comes from. What I do know is that it accepts us for who we are, and acceptance alone has the magic power to lift our spirits. It is kind. It gives us a break. It loves us no matter what. It causes us to crack a smile. It causes us to return to our List of What Feeds Us and put flowers on our mantel.

In fact, I'm thinking it's the power behind The List.

Back at the dinner table, Michael and I persisted in our attempts to cheer Elizabeth. We invited her to sit with us at the table. We made silly faces. We offered her food. Then Michael told her that if she wanted to feel better, she needed to say, “Badika-bado”, take a drink of milk, and pat her head. To show her it worked, we each performed the magic ritual and (voila!) we were happy again.

She gave us a suspicious look.

“It’s not going to work,” she said as she reached for her cup. “Badika-bado,” she said quietly. Then she took a sip and patted her head. “It didn’t work," she insisted. "I’m still sad.” But she cracked a smile. She performed the ritual again, just to prove it didn’t work, and the smile grew a little wider.

Which goes to show, sometimes The Voice is external.

If you ever find that your List of What Feeds You isn’t working, listen for The Voice wherever you can. Listen for it in your journal. Listen for it in the voices of your friends and family. Listen for it in the smell of warm chocolate and the taste of fresh Italian parsley. Listen for it in unlikely places -- within the pages of a cheesy magazine or on a television show. Listen for it in obvious places -- in your little girl’s hugs or in the purring of a cat.

But Listen.

Then, when you’re ready, put some fresh Gladiolas on your dinner table (and Pat Benatar on your CD Player).


Dating Trooper - Dating is Warfare March 3, 2008 at 4:21 PM  

I've taken this same journey:
1) First you think you're unhappy because the world sucks and you SHOULD be unhappy.
2) Then you think you're unhappy because YOU suck and can't hack the world (this phase usually lasts the longest).
3) Then you think perhaps it's just your biochemistry that sucks and you can finally stop blaming yourself - just a little bit.
4)This is where it gets tricky - what do you DO about it? Some say medication, others meditation or exercise or journaling or fresh flowers (for me it's chinese food).

I read Eat, Pray, Love too (it was amazing - even if Oprah did shove it down our throats) and think the answer of what to do is in that quote you picked. It doesn't matter what you do - the point is that you fully love and embrace that sad, dark, bitter, unhappy little person inside you no matter what.Funny how we deprive ourselves of unconditional love, isn't it?

Thanks for this thoughtful entry. Forget reading self-help books! You should be writing one!

Rima March 3, 2008 at 6:08 PM  

I love this. You speak so many truths in this post. And I like the reminder to listen for the voice. I think it is always around, too, but I forget to listen.

Why is it that we choose to wallow in unhappiness, when it takes so much more energy to do that than to crack a smile and see where it takes you? I do it all the time - to the point where I refuse a hug on the off chance that it might make me feel better.

Oh, and if the voice speaks through Pat Benetar, then so be it!

mimi of 'sexagenarian and the city',  March 3, 2008 at 8:58 PM  

i wish you & michael had been my parents....! your children will some day realize how lucky they've been.

Jessie March 4, 2008 at 9:23 AM  

I love how you chalked it up to it being something physical. If more people adjusted their diets, or made the realization that sadness is linked to other things than just emotions, the pharmaceutical industry would go bankrupt.

Mumsydoodle March 4, 2008 at 11:25 AM  

I totally echo what dating trooper said: you could definitely write a self-help book! You would write a good one, not some pie-in-the-sky-let's-be-suzy-sunshine-and-not-deal-with-life-as-it-really-is-book, but a real self-help book, one that allows us to be ourselves, no matter what, and be comforted by our spirit.

The truth is, sometimes I want to be sad, and sometimes I want to a bitch. In fact, on some level I even revel in those times. And when I've had enough I always know because I start to get bored with feeling that way. That's when I know to move on to the good stuff.

Loved your post!

Deb,  March 4, 2008 at 2:26 PM  

OK, I know exactly where you're coming from.

That's all.


Michele March 4, 2008 at 7:15 PM  

I'm so sorry I just had time to read this entry. So beautiful and all so true. When I'm going through a tough time ... like now with the stinking condo not selling and us not being able to have another child after almost a year of trying, I tend to only focus on what's not working well and ignore everything else. It's like I WANT to focus on the bad and I let it take over my life. I think it's similar to wanting to stay in a dark, ugly mood. All great food for thought. Thanks so much.

Anonymous,  March 4, 2008 at 8:49 PM  

The following is an Email I received from one of my friends that is so true... (Melissa)

Once we have children WE ARE NOT ALLOWED TO BE SAD. Even though our hormones will never be the same and wreak more havoc on us than we will ever realize.

I have been thinking a lot lately about no matter how much work you know motherhood is going to be, no one ever warns you about how much your personality, character, and mood will shape the personality, character, and mood of your entire household every moment of every day. The weight of being responsible not only for the physical but also mental and emotion well-being of an entire family can be crushing, and it's not wonder so many women just can't carry it all the time or for their whole lives.

The problem with making a "happy list" is that, at least in my case, most things on the list are materially incompatible with my current lifestyle. You know, like:

1. Stay in bed reading until noon. On a weekday.
2. Spend all my money buying cool stuff I don't need.
3. Don't do chores if I don't feel like it.
4. Travel to New York or Paris at the drop of a hat to visit my relatives.
etc... etc...

Mama Drama Jenny, the Bloggess March 5, 2008 at 9:09 AM  

Beautifully written.

It made me smile in spite of myself.

Dawn March 7, 2008 at 12:14 PM  

You and I are truly on the same wavelength. You describe it all so well.
I had severe postpartum depression after my son was born and it was the worst.
I applaud your efforts and for looking inside yourself and your honesty.
Very well said.

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