Flora is bent over her loom, all concentration. Fingers sore, forehead creased. Snap! Something goes wrong—it’s all undone, all that work for nothing! She sobs in frustration. Starts again. Forehead creased. So focused. Happy? No, not so much.
Cinder is building worlds in Minecraft. He’s changing—hacking—a map or mod. Nothing’s going right. And finally, when it does—the Internet crashes. Then his computer freezes. “Fuck!” he screams. Restarts the router, the computer. Runs around the block a few times. Returns to his project. “This sucks! I’m so angry and frustrated!” he tells me as he sits back down at the desk. Swears some more as he waits for his applications to boot up.
Ender is trying to make a perfect “O.” No, he’s building a car ramp. Wait, he’s fiddling with his brother’s Lego. Now he’s reorganizing the kitchen pantry. “Mom? Is there anything I can cut?” I give him the tray of mushrooms, an aging cucumber, a cutting board, a knife. He massacres the vegetables. Focused. Determined. Happy? I don’t know… certainly not when he nicks his finger, bleeds, and needs a bandaid…
I’m bent over my laptop, salty water leaking out the corners of my eyes. I’ve just finished and sent out another assiduously, arduously tailored pitch and in the time I’ve been working on it, four new rejections pop into my in-box. Four. One of them back so quickly I know the recipient didn’t even bother reading the covering email, never mind the requested 50-page pitch package. I am deflated, battered, rejected, exhausted, angry, discouraged, oh, and in tears. Happy? Ha! I want to curl up into the fetal position on the filthy floor of the public washroom of the cafe in which I’m working* and wail at the universe.
I splash water at my face, wail to a friend via text, accept comfort and almost believe it, eat a chocolate croissant. Get back to work. Happy? No. But… moving on. In pursuit.
In pursuit, but not of happiness. I think the “just do what makes you happy,” “I just want my kids to be happy,” “Surely I deserve to be happy!” way of thinking—this cult of happiness North Americans pursue and sell to the rest of the world via their movies, ads and products—contributes to the First World epidemics of depression, entitlement, overconsumption, constant dissatisfaction. If we are taught—inculcated—with the idea that we are supposed to be happy and in pursuit of happiness—if not at always, at least most of the time, we are doomed to be disappointed and dissatisfied—if not always, at least most of the time.
I don’t want my kids to be doomed, disappointed or constantly dissatisfied.
And so, I don’t want them to “just be happy.”
Because happiness is a mood. A transient mood at that. A symptom, a byproduct, a reflection. A feeling.
It is not a goal, an achievement.
Now, beloved, listen to this: I’m not at all depressive or negative. I feel bliss frequently, and when I don’t experience it for a while, I will chase hits of dopamine as often, with as much abandon, maybe more, as you do. I think it’s wonderful to feel happy. And I absolutely want my children to feel happy, often, frequently, sustainably.
But I don’t “just want them to be happy.”
I want them to be… fulfilled. To know how to get full. And how to fill others. I want them to be purposeful, to have purpose, and live lives of meaning. I want them to be resilient. And grateful. To contribute, build, create, change. Help. Love. Be loved.
I want them to pursue difficult things. To glow with success and satisfaction when they succeed—to cry and mourn and to learn and find a way to move forward when they fail. I want them to know how to think… how to persevere… and you know, also, how to give up. Because that’s a skill too, and sometimes, you’ve got to stop beating your head against the wall, step away, and look around for a rope ladder with which to climb over that wall… or maybe a sledgehammer with which to demolish it…
I want them to be… human. Alive. Fully alive, aware. And that means: they will be sad. So sad. Angry. Thwarted. Frustrated. Discouraged. Disappointed. Battered. Rejected. Full of suffering, angst.
And then, later, or even at the same time, they will be in the flow, productive, thrilled, ecstatic, stoked, oh-so-happy.
But in the pursuit of something other, grander, more important, more meaningful, bigger than “just being happy.”
Flora walks out of her martial arts class head held high, but on the brink of tears, and they come when she’s safe in the car. “I think I did well,” she gets out between sobs. “I don’t think I screwed anything up. But, oh, I’m so upset! So anxious and unhappy right now!” When she gets her new belt… she will be ecstatic, walking in air. So-happy.
Cinder calls me to come see what he’s build. It’s taken hours. It’s beautifully complex. He’s spent. But so satisfied. He barely remembers how much swearing he was thrusting at the computer screen earlier in the day.
Ender crawls into my lap in tears. He wants to see his cousin, he wants to go to Legoland, he wants to have Ikea meatballs for lunch, he is so-so-unhappy, life is terrible, awful, he is exhausted. I read him books; he falls asleep. I am exhausted too. Happy? In this moment? No. But… fulfilled. Determined. Purposeful. Conscious. Aware.
I kiss his forehead, cheek as I tuck him in. Feel a shot of bliss and happiness. Enjoy it for a moment… then traipse down to the laptop. Stare at my cracked-spiderweb screen. Take a deep breath. Start writing. Seek flow, creation, accomplishment…
*Cafes, my office away from home. Because a) flood and b) reconstruction and c) the secret to working at home with kids is to run away from them.
Looking for me? I’ve revamped the for-stalkers-and-bloggers-and-no-I’m-a-real-sane-fan! section: Find “Jane”
Next week on Nothing By The Book: The return of Cinder and Ender penis stories, Flora’s interpretative dance of the new math, and Jane’s surrender to existential angst (also possibly in interpretative dance).
This week in my real life: My real self wrote this column The CEO has a uterus: no, wait, the problem is that he doesn’t. It’s sort of going to change the world and you should check it out.