The next morning, I left before any of the teenagers sleeping here were awake and went to the supermarket. Who was the first person to wish me a Happy New Year in the light of New Year’s Day? My ex husband, who, like me, was buying onions.
Happy New Year.
As New Years go, it wasn’t the worst, nor the best, nor one to remember, really. It was pretty much just a Thursday followed by a day off–if you count buying Drano and snaking the sink as a day off.
And yet, it was the start of a very important calendar year for me–the year my older son starts college and my younger one submits his applications. It is a transition year when I’ll get the house ready to sell and my new life as an empty nester ready to kick off. It is the year I am “on deck.”
I was thinking about this in the car yesterday when my son and I passed a worker hanging off the back of a garbage truck, dancing and singing to whatever music was playing in his earbuds. He looked like he belonged in an iPod ad, if the sets of iPod ads smelled like rancid eggnog and pine needles, I suppose.
Now, that man knew how to do New Year’s, though I imagine that’s probably how he does lots of Thursdays. He sings and dances on the back of a moving garbage truck. Someone could turn his mobile show into an Internet meme, a repeating gif of his crooning while shaking his free leg and arm in the wind. Under the gif it would read, “Choose to be happy,” and millions of people would repost it as a reminder to the sad and lonely and the disgruntled and disappointed and the jealous and bored that we can choose how we feel about life, whether we’re having the time of our lives drinking Champagne straight from the bottle at a rocking New Year’s Eve celebration or plunging soupy water from the kitchen sink drain.
But I call bullshit.
You can’t “choose to be happy” any more than you can choose to be tall. There isn’t a dial on our hearts that we can set to “happy” just because our brains want us to. You can’t just switch off sad or lonely or disappointed or any of those icky feelings that no one wants to hear about, not without a fair amount of denial and perhaps, drugs. No, it takes a heck of a lot more work than that to be happy.
We don’t choose happiness, we pursue it. Our forefathers even said so. But when we do catch it, we never completely let go of the less desirable emotions. If we did, we would never grieve the loss of our loved ones or shed a tear for the painful moments in life. Happiness waxes and wanes so that we appreciate it more when it shows up.
We don’t choose happiness, it chooses us when we do the work of acknowledging the bad feelings and validating all feelings. When we stop telling ourselves (and our children) how we “should” feel and quit reminding everyone that there are people who have it worse off.
Even when I was a patient on the oncology floor at New York Hospital nearly nine years ago, there were people who were worse off than me, because they were dying. Yet I had every right to hang up the phone after my kids called to play the piano for me, and cry. And I did. I couldn’t choose to be happy, because I was too busy choosing to do everything I could not to die.
Since then I have done the hard work that tends to attract happy, and it does show up, even when I’m rescuing dinner from a fiery end. When I choose to be present, resourceful (see above: plunger and Drano), patient, and understanding with all of my emotions, not just the sunny ones, I get something better than happy. I get a state of content that could break out into a song and dance at any moment.
It wasn’t a bad New Year’s. Believe me, I’ve suffered those. But it wasn’t a fabulous one, either. It just was the end of one year and the start of the next. And I’m choosing to let it be whatever it is.