My post on mindfulness got me to thinking, quite a bit. Dangerous, I know. But helpful, especially with all that rationalizing I like to do… I felt it was time to step aside for a moment and observe how I came to be in this place. Learning to let go and has not been a fast or easy lesson for me. It’s hard, and I have so very much more growing left. It is a daily practice and reading about how others have been successful has been incredibly helpful. Considering that, I felt it was worth sharing part of my journey to date. You know, to squash the wild assumption that I’ve always been this chill. But really, understanding where I’ve been is helping me shape where I’d like to go and also helping me identify the lessons I want to emphasize for my children. To put it twitter style: “Liking what you see in the mirror requires first being willing to see your own reflection#knowledgeispower.”
So, gulp, here goes nothin’.Perhaps not surprisingly, I spent the better first thirty(ish) years of my life being a uber planner. Not just like, make weekend plans with friends kind of planner, but a straight up “my life is going to look just like this because I said so” kind of planner. A list making, long term goal-setting, I’m going to schedule myself into happiness kind of planner. Guess what? Drumroll please. . . that didn’t work out so great. Shocking news, I’m sure.
When I was a kid, I was pretty sure that to be happy when you were a “grown-up” you were supposed to have certain things. A husband, for example, with a good job, a nice house, nice cars, a fulfilling career, a few kids, maybe a pet or two. And I was pretty clear on the order to obtain these things, go to college, become gainfully and happily employed, get married, buy a house, get a dog, have some kids. Ta-da! I’ll take one order of a happy life-in-a-bag, hold the irritating in-laws and obnoxious neighbors please.
No one expressly stated this to me, my mom didn’t sit me down and say “look Michelle, in order to be happy you have to marry a good man and keep him satisfied.” No, I was not born in 1950 and actually, my mother was remarkably independent. I was, however, like everyone else, subject to a whole lot of input from society. From media, in school, from examples all around me.
Most of my friend’s parents were married. Our family’s social networks included people with certain “things” and jobs and ideals. I repeatedly saw value placed on those things. And there is nothing wrong with that, it was a great life. The things I saw growing up were good things, and at least from my point of view everyone was happy. My point is simply that my perceptions of what happy adulthood looked like were very fundamentally shaped by what I saw, heard, experienced and saw reinforced.
So I tried it. I made goals and plans, and I saw those plans through. When things didn’t work and I wasn’t happy, I made new plans, got more “stuff” and kept putting up a good front, careful to document and portray a beautiful life for bystanders. But inside, doors closed, blinds shut, it wasn’t enough. It was never enough. That gaping hole, that absence of contentment, could never seem to be filled by any of the things I kept checking off the list.
As a metaphorical example (love those metaphors, just can’t get enough), think of life like following a recipe. I thought that if I gathered all the right ingredients for chocolate chip cookies, mixed them in the right order and baked them at just the right temperature for just the right time the result would be perfect chocolate chip cookies. Well, I tried that, and all that came out of the oven were some really bad batches of sugary dough. Parts of them resembled cookies, hell, some of them even looked like the real deal. None of them, however, were wholly satisfying.
Now one might think I figured this out after I got divorced, right? Wrong. Well, a little wrong, there were certainly a lot of missteps there. I did, to some extent, recognize how I had created my own reality and why it wasn’t working. I knew I had been seeking the wrong stuff, but I wasn’t entirely sure what the right stuff was. So, I started to do something about it by taking care of myself, putting myself back on the list of priorities.That was step one, and it helped me redefine what my priorities actually were. That was good progress. High five, self.
However, that habit of seeking THE plan, THE answer, THE ingredients, manifested itself in a new way for me- Single Life 101- course objectives as determined by society. Content set forth by those who have little to nothing to do with the outcome and whose stake in the matter, mattered very little. Everyone, and I mean everyone, had input on what I was supposed to do now. Who to date, when to date, how to date. How much time was enough, how much time was too much. You name it, I heard it, and I tried to follow a whole lot of it, blindly. Good times.
Luckily, I realized there I was again, falling right back into that trap of “supposed to’s.” Only this time it wasn’t ingredients for white picket fences. It was ingredients for getting through and out of the single life. How to get back to “normal,” stat, just like everyone said I would. In that struggle, that resistance to discomfort in which I was actively engaged, I was once again trying to solve the problem by itemizing and following the expectations and norms of others. So I stopped listening to all of it, and I started listening more selectively. I filled my ears and heart with things that made sense to me and fit within my (newly rediscovered) core sense of self and fit within my own values and morals.
How did I figure this out? Or rather, how am I figuring this out? By trying, and failing, and trying again. By being willing to take risks and listening to my gut. It’s a process, I will never be “done” or “right” or “perfect,” but ultimately, the person who knows what works for me, is me. Sometimes.
Through these rather painful (and expensive) lessons, I am learning that no matter how hard I work to accumulate society’s list of “must-have’s,” they do not, in and of themselves, create happiness. There isn’t a magic plan, there are no particular steps to follow. There is just life, where I’m at and what comes my way. I can either choose to embrace it, arms wide open, wholeheartedly, or I can ignore it, pretend it’s not there. Be an ostrich. Stuff the emotion. The choice is mine. The reactions are mine. The tools to be happy reside within me, not stuff.
To revisit my culinary metaphor then, being happy is not about exact ingredients and precise recipes, it is about creative resourcefulness – improv culinary skills, as it were. It’s is about taking the ingredients in front of you and doing something great with them. Not just making lemonade out of lemons kind of generic crap, but taking those lemons and making a gin and tonic!
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