Updated: Mar 24
When I first posed the question to myself last spring, deep in the newness of quarantine, I didn’t even know what the word Happiness meant to me, or what it really looked like out in the real world. All I knew is that we had been grounded at home for nearly eight weeks. Eight weeks that weren’t all that bad. There was a lot of family time, and long walks around the neighborhood. With no commute, we slept-in a little and started cocktail hour at 3:00 and slow-cooked comfort food and found a new rhythm in a level of isolation we had never known before.
But those weeks also contained a certain level of anxiety for me. There was a lot of spaciousness and time and head space in which my goal-oriented brain thrashed about looking for the next dopamine hit. For a time there were no sales to be made, there were no commitments to keep, there was nothing really to do except check a few remote boxes at work, make sure the kids showed up for zoom class, and do pipe cleaner crafts with my preschooler. And while I was completely relishing the lack of stress, and the abundant family time, I didn’t really know what to do with myself if I wasn’t achieving something.
I had spent my whole adult life pushing and never letting up. Acting like a video game that never refreshed after a new high score. Done and done and on to the next one. Enough is never enough. More is always the answer. Anything is possible, so everything is possible. Satisfaction is for people who don’t dream big enough. Burned out and exhausted are a badge. Rest is for the weak. People who play and enjoy life can’t really be trusted. I’ll play when my achievements have been fully realized. I’ll sleep when I’m dead.
The pact I made with my stress and anxiety required me to constantly push and control and worry about what was around the next bend. The hope was that one day I would finally come around the corner and land at a place where I could truly rest. But I wrestled with the feeling of always coming up short, the ambient sense of failure no matter what I achieved, and the haunting impression of being left behind even before my feet hit the floor in the morning. I interpreted all of that as strong medicine telling me to try harder and do more. Forget the full plate, full home, full gas tank, a full and overflowing, abundant life, it all meant nothing unless I forgot to breathe. Then, only then, was I really and truly trying.
So naturally, when one cannot fulfill a pact with achievement, and one’s DNA is not wired for quietly waiting, one has no other choice but to numb. Another zoom happy hour, anyone? Another two-pound bag of candy? Another binge-watch on Netflix? Yes, yes and yes. But at the beginning of June, when it started to become clear that this pandemic wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon, my waistline was telling me that maybe martinis, and skittles at midnight, weren’t exactly a sustainable plan. Maybe numbing wasn’t really the best game plan for the long haul.
Someone, somewhere, said this whole pandemic thing could take as long as three years to run its course. THREE YEARS!?! We weren’t even at three months yet. We were writing history, and the trouble with history is that it takes time. Right along with a whole wide world, I realized, we were no longer just out for a weekend jaunt across the lake, we were sailing across an ocean, and not one of us had packed appropriately.
So, now what? Maybe I needed fewer martinis and more of something else. Perhaps more gratitude. To simply sit in my wealth and be glad for it. Thank you, thank you, thank you...stop wanting more. One early morning, trying to quiet my mind, I stopped pushing into gratitude and asked instead: if more is what you want, then...more of what? I didn’t really know. The winning lottery ticket always sounded like a good place to start. A bikini bod that went along with an extended tropical vacation would be a close second. But even those, in all of their promise, were shallow salves to an unanswered question.
So, I turned to some of my favorite poets and modern-day sages to fill my head with affirmations on which to lay my spinning, calculating, worrying brain. I picked up Mary Oliver and Rumi, Brene Brown and Elizabeth Gilbert. I read books called Everyday Sacred, Kitchen Table Wisdom and Everything is Figueroutable. I listened to podcasts interviewing poet laureates and Indian tribal leaders. I drank in an interview with Margaret Atwood whose 80-year-old voice brought hope that someday an older version of myself will look back on this time and marvel and laugh and tell stories like this was the best, most illuminated, time of our lives.
Earbuds and podcasts and reading into the wee hours became my lifeline to a brain that needed to do something. In that spirit, I don’t know if picking up the book Untamed by Glennon Doyle was the best or worst decision of my quarantine reading. If you’ve read it, then you know. If you haven’t, just know that it’s a book that makes you want to take a match to the inventory of your whole life. Top to bottom. Which, is not ideal when there’s a travel ban, and a global pandemic and literally no place to escape, not even a friend’s house. Stuck at home is what I was, forced to take a real and deep look inside myself, in the unending quiet of waiting.
And in that quiet, came the revelation that all of these years my need for achievement only advocated for whatever it is I perceived as my current prison. I’ve volunteered for jobs and positions that kept me in leadership but never asked me to be authentic. I’ve kept quiet, promising the ever-louder writer in me that I could tell my truth tomorrow, or next year. I straightened my hair and ate salads. I leaned into control, feigning politeness and humility. Not bad things in themselves, unless they constitute the whole picture.
It turns out I had forgotten altogether that I’m not blown-out and conforming, I’m actually wild and frizzy. That all these years it was my idea alone to give away my power, and then blame that on others. I reinforced my own walls and barred my own windows. And then I stood at those windows and took aim at all the people I thought were keeping me there.
I also learned from all of these sages that numbing wasn’t the answer, but neither was happiness, which of course is a transient and fickle feeling contained in small moments like the first sip of hot coffee, Christmas morning, or a delicious hug from your kid right before they say something really annoying. What I longed for in the deepest caverns of my soul was contentment. And the road to that, I learned, is paved in moments of joy. I didn’t even know what brought me joy. I knew what brought me dopamine hits, but joy was something that escaped me altogether. It’s the thing that gets lost first and fastest in the pursuit of achievement. And if I’m honest, it was something that felt a little dangerous. Because if I felt joyful, it meant I might be okay right here in this moment, but then who would look out for tomorrow and next month and next year?
Content. At ease. Unworried about tomorrow. That sounded stupid dangerous.
But in that small opening, I saw the first glimpse of a truth: stress was never going to be my partner. Anxiety was never going to hold up its end of the bargain. And as much as I blamed them for strangling me, it was really me white-knuckling their scrawny little necks, demanding they show up and save me. Something they were never capable of doing. It was in that moment of internal pause that I saw, from on-high, that they were never my partners, they were my addiction.
This stirred in me something big. I would get through a few chapters and then wear out the sidewalk across the street from my house like, in the words of Doyle, a god-damned caged cheetah. I was in search of something inside me that needed to be dismantled, but I couldn’t rely on any of my old vices. In that moment, there was no overt or outward action I could take. No plane to catch. No career to change. No desire, like Glennon, to divorce or fall in love with a woman, or start a massive nonprofit. So instead of thinking big, I had to go small. Micro instead of macro. I paced and thought, and paced and thought.
I had always done something, so I wondered what would happen if I tried doing nothing. Or perhaps doing less. Just less. Less of anything that brought stress or low-grade panic attacks. What if I just leaned into the little stuff that felt good and filled me with warmth and ease? Because, after all, this needed to last. This wasn’t any more about a quick fix or an ego boost, this was about the long-view where feeling good lasted past the point when we are back to “normal”, when the world starts spinning again and the pace of life goes back to a mock speed. This was about declaring for myself that we’re not going back there anymore. Declaring that I would stop crushing things to death with my determination.
I started simple. Yoga every morning. Not sweaty, hour long sessions, but like 20 minutes tops. I was doing yoga, I wasn’t achieving yoga. And then follow that up with a better breakfast. A walk. I looked up from the computer. I look up at the sky. I stopped wearing makeup and let my hair go curly again. I looked in the mirror less and looked my kids in the face more. I started writing poetry no one would read, and burning time just stacking rocks beside a creek, and studying the curve of light that moved across the driveway in the late afternoon. I listened to symphonies and meditated on the base line in a Pink Floyd song and I drew into a stillness that was stolen and singularly mine. When I told myself just one more email was better than resting or walking, I flipped that, too. When I was tempted to stress eat, I purged a closet. I broke up with social media. It wasn’t the first time and it wouldn’t be the last, but I knew early on that my fragile psyche couldn’t handle the public outcry around our crumbling status quo.
Because guess what? I was having my own public outcry, right there inside my very own head. To turn down the volume on those internal voices, to ignore the thrashing ego, to disregard the blow-horn at the base of my skull that tells me sitting quietly will only lead to death…that took a massive effort. It felt like fighting for my life. I would go so far as to say that leaning into quiet contentment ranks at the very top of my life’s hardest work.
But I was trying. It wasn’t perfect. I added the good stuff more than I took away what was bringing me down. It was something. And when I strung enough of those little, joy-filled somethings together it was like a magnet for other good stuff like creativity, which had always felt like a burden, and laughter which always felt like it belonged to other people.
So, when we arrived to December, verging on the precipice of bidding farewell to the most notoriously jolting year of our lives, I wasn’t surprised to see the explosion of F**k Off 2020 merchandise. T-shirts, Christmas ornaments, travel mugs and bumper stickers. We were beyond ready to sail that bad boy into the horizon. But I couldn’t help to feel a little sadness around that sentiment. That maybe we shouldn’t place the year, as a whole, into the archives of WORLD’S WORST. Was there really nothing redeeming? Did we really, collectively, miss the opportunity to take a beat and inventory what should stay and what definitely needs to go? Was there a reason we were delivered a massive pause that sent us to our rooms, and stripped us of our egos and vices? Was a year that demanded we sit down and listen up, really a total loss?
We are not promised a rose-colored life. We are not promised that the party will go on and on. I can hear the spirits laughing now at the idea that we don’t deserve hardship and discomfort. Oh, how they delight to see us squirm and sweat. Because they know from our discomfort comes change. From our unease comes compassion and introspection. From our tears and loss comes a clearer picture of our fragility and vulnerability. And in the face of that we have two choices – to numb and turn away, or to look inward and let it crack us open and rearrange us until we are unrecognizable to ourselves.
Did you notice that this one is waiting us out? As we passed the one year anniversary and stare down the line of the work we still have to do, did you notice that it’s still not really going anywhere? Hope is on the horizon, for a more “normal” life, but what is required of us in the new definition of normal? It feels to me like this catalyst will remain in place until we figure out this part. Until we see more clearly that our wealth exists in the spaces in between. That abundance is in the breathing room. That joy lives in our ability to take in and appreciate what already exists. That contentment can be ours, for free, in this very moment if we're willing to reach out and claim it.
Maybe then, and maybe only then, will we stop seeing this as something that is happening to us, and allow it instead to come inside, rearrange the furniture, and find a comfy spot to stay awhile. It is already taking up space with an invitation. I’m figuring out what to do with mine. What will you do with yours?
This being human is a guest house. Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness, some momentary awareness comes as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all! Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows, who violently sweep your house empty of its furniture, still, treat each guest honorably. He may be clearing you out for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice, meet them at the door laughing, and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes, because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.
Jalaluddin Rumi from Rumi: Selected Poems, trans Coleman Barks with John Moynce, A. J. Arberry, Reynold Nicholson (Penguin Books, 2004)
Cover Image: IStock