Lessons in Happiness

The way we talk about happiness, you’d think it was the most valuable currency in the galaxy. When parents tell their children of their aspirations for them, it usually boils down to something like, “as long as you’re happy honey, we’re behind you 100%”. Or, when you’re trying to act like an adult after a painful breakup, and tell your former love, “I just want you to be happy, really”.

You knew it was bullshit when your parents said it, and you knew it was even more of a load when you said it to your ex, but you gobbled it up and dished it out all the same. What the hell for? I can understand the rationale for not revealing the true identity of Santa Clause to a four year old (or however old kids are when they still believe in Old St. Nick), but after a certain age, why do we continue to profess our aspirations for something that may not actually exist?

A friend and I have been discussing this very topic for quite some time, and have yet to come to any sort of agreement on the matter. While I, who can sometimes come across as a bit surly, actually do believe such a thing as happiness does exist, I’ll concede that its definition remains a mystery. My friend, however, leans more toward the stuff of myths and mystery, than something that can truly be achieved.

At least, that’s what he tells me.

So, I started thinking about what exactly happiness is—to me at least—and recalled one particular moment, that still comes to mind when I think of pure happiness.

Passing the Series 7

Long long ago, in a galaxy far , far away, I worked at a bank—a broker-dealer if we’re getting specific. I’ve always hated math, and pretty much loathed anything relating to markets, money or exchanges, since I first noticed my father reading the Wall Street Journal as a child. I don’t even know if they do this anymore, but back in the day, stock prices and indexes were neatly printed in the daily papers, in the tiniest imaginable type, and lined up to form an image that to this day still pops into my head when I think of the stock market. Unless you had the paper close enough to smell the ink, it was nearly impossible to decipher the three and four letter codes, and corresponding prices, let alone understand what they all meant. For me anyway.

I could barely convince myself to balance my checkbook (and often didn’t—back when we still used checkbooks). I just didn’t like numbers. I didn’t like finance all that much, and I certainly never anticipated a career requiring me to be knowledgeable of such things.

So, although thrilled when the bank offered me a promotion, I was understandably horrified when they stipulated I had to pass the Series 7 and 63 to keep the job. I knew I wasn’t meant to do this, and I nearly turned it down.

I also didn’t think I could do it. There was no-way-in-hell I could ever pass that test. It was notoriously difficult—not CFA, the bar or MCAT difficult, but good chunk of test takers would fail on their first attempt—and my job was quite literally at stake if I didn’t pass. But, my desire to assimilate won the day, and I accepted the position, vowing to myself I’d study hard and pass.

Let me assure you, studying for this test was torture like I’d never know before or since. I knew I had to do it, and I knew I’d pull through—eventually. But truthfully, I didn’t think I’d pass. Studying for that test was easily one of the most painful ordeals I’ve endured from a professional or academic perspective. But, whether I liked it or not, test day came, just like my calendar said it would, and I resigned myself to the fact I would fail as I drove to the sterile test-taking center, somewhere in Pasadena, California.

After slogging through annoyingly cheerfully basic computer screens for four of the six hours I was allotted, I called the fight. Mercifully, the test was electronic, which meant after months, and the fresh hours of torture, I’d finally know peace. One way or another, I’d know my fate.

I finished earlier than everyone else, which certainly meant I’d done something wrong. By that time, my brain was fried, and my nerves were raw. I was just done. I clicked the button to submit my answers. Then clicked again, when asked if I was really sure I wanted to do that—as if the computer knew how unsure I was of myself. “Fuck you” I thought, and hit submit again, and yes, again once more. I was so pissed off with the “are you really sure you’re ready to seal your fate” questions with cute little dialog boxes, I almost didn’t care about the result.

And then, as if in response, with it’s own “fuck you” the screen went completely blank, then flashed a tiny line of black letters in the middle of the 15 inch monitor, telling me to “please wait” while my score was tabulated. By far the longest 23 seconds of my life, and suddenly, I wanted to take it all back.

In the span of seconds, I spun on my heels and immediately cared desperately about the result. Now, with my future quite literally at my fingertips, I silently begged for a second chance—”I’ll study more next time!” I promised in vain as I pleaded with the universe for a mildly destructive earthquake, power outage or freak EMP flash that would necessitate a re-do. That didn’t happen, but I would’ve been less surprised if it had, than what happened next.

The screen blinked again, briefly, and a new tiny line of black text appeared in the middle of the page. If I focused, I knew I could make out the message, but my eyes wouldn’t cooperate—I was better off not knowing.

But, nearly as quickly as the sickness of fear and failure washed over me, a surge of confidence overcame me. Before even knowing the results, I could feel my cheeks hurting with the smile that stretched across my face.

I don’t remember making a sound, but I certainly did something, because the instant I saw, “Congratulations…..your score was, blah, blah, blah….you PASSED” I could feel the entire room of bloodshot eyes shooting daggers into the back of my skull for disrupting their concentration.

I quickly gathered my two and a half pieces of scratch paper allowed, my calculator, my pencils, and my claim ticket for my bag, and rushed toward the exit. The proctor, at this point smiling nearly as stupidly as me, gently extended a hand and quietly reminded me to claim my bag and turn in my test materials. I looked at him with what I can only imagine looked like shock, and mouthed, “I passed!” He replied “I know” silently, with a smile as he handed my bag.

I stepped outside, greeted by one of the most beautiful California Tuesday afternoons in recorded history, and marveled at what had just happened. This test, this impossible feat that I was certain I could never beat, was suddenly a credential on my resume. Me, the financially-challenged, was now deemed by the NASD (now called FINRA) as suitable to trade securities. You know, all those tiny little codes on the back of my father’s Wall Street Journal?

In that moment, I accepted—what I had previously deemed after-school-special drivel—the idea that in fact, just about anything was possible. If I could pass that test, me, the one who loathes all numbers not on my paycheck, knew anything was possible, and promised to never underestimate myself again.

And in that brief, sunny Tuesday afternoon, I was complete. I can’t say for sure what exactly happiness “is” but in that moment, I understood with the certainty of a zealot, my path was purely of my own making, and it was beyond blissful.

 Happiness—A Cruel Master

Yet, the cruelty of this is not lost on me, as some of the most painful and most definitely not happy moments (ahem, years) of my life were, as a result, dedicated to a field I loathed, because I passed that fucking test. One I didn’t even want to take, and until I admitted I didn’t like the idea of failure, one I wouldn’t have cared if I passed or failed if my paycheck hadn’t depended on it.

So, what did I learn? One of the happiest moments of my life, led to many of the most difficult, painful and disappointing. Was I wrong in thinking I was happy at that moment? Was I merely just satisfied I had achieved a standard set by someone else—someone I didn’t even know, not really a person at all, but a global corporation? Was it possible that, in part, my perceived joy on that day was attributed to the fact that, with this credential, I could fit in?

I could be like everyone else—even if I didn’t want to be.

And that’s what I did. I spent all of my twenties pursuing a career I hated, because a test told me I was “good enough” to fit into this little box that society had created. After all, I grew up in Montana, went to state school and didn’t really give a shit about designer handbags. I wasn’t an artist, I wasn’t a scientist and you’d have to break both my arms and legs before you’d convince me to go to business school (all that math, you know). How the hell could I ever expect this society to take me in? Where did I fit?

I didn’t, and I knew it—I was going to have to fake it, and this test was my golden ticket. And in that moment, after passing that terrible test, that childish part of me that still seeks the approval of my elders and friends, reveled in the proof that I was one of them.

That was the beginning of a very slippery slope. Rather than appreciating what was unique about me, I patted myself on the back for forcing myself to conform to a standard I knew didn’t apply to me, yet I strived for just the same.

On this happiest day, I celebrated the death of my creativity and curiosity, and welcomed what would turn into over a decade chasing an ideal that didn’t exist for me. I don’t know if I’ll ever catch up to this thing called happiness, but I do know that what satisfies me in life is not dependent upon it. I’ve considered this before, and after this exercise, I’m even more convinced. For me, what I get out of life isn’t about happiness, it’s about truth.

The instant I discarded what I knew to be true, and embraced what society seemed to value, I lost sight of what was true to me. Yes, that moment when I passed the test was a beautiful high—but like most highs, it didn’t last, and what I was left with was the hollow shell of an idea I didn’t truly believe.

I started out this post, expecting to tell you how we’re all capable of so much more than we give ourselves credit for, and that if someone who cringes when calculating the tip after dinner can pass the Series 7, the world is your oyster.

But I’m ending it with the conclusion that happiness can be a dangerous distraction—it certainly was in my case. Where would I be if I had failed that test? My fear of rejection still tempts me to believe my life would’ve been ruined, and that despite all the years of misery I suffered as a result of my “success”, it was just one of the many bumps in the road we’re all told we have to endure to get us where we really want to go. Obviously, there’s some truth in that, since, I am here, writing this now, but….

What if I’d failed, and been forced to take a different path? What if I’d listened to what I knew was true for me then, and as it turns out, still is now? How long would it have taken me to discover my love for writing, literature, travel, the ocean? Would I be traveling the world, writing beautiful stories about far-off places and people? Would I have found love, would I be healthy, would I have ever stopped loving the person I saw in the mirror every morning?

What if, what if, what if.

That’s the lesson happiness has taught me, and I’ll never trust that feeling again.

I couldn’t be happier.

 

 

 

 

The Ride

I wrapped my arms around his chest, and laced my fingers together. The leather of his jacket warmed beneath the heat of my nervous hands, and I felt safe.

He’d taken me on the freeway once before, but this was the first time we’d gone over the bridge. I negotiated that bridge every morning for nearly 10 years. I knew what cars did to motorcycles. But, he told me to trust him, and for some reason I did.

We darted and weaved, navigating through Saturday evening traffic in a syncopated rhythm to which I was constantly just one beat behind. I tightened my grip and reminded myself I trusted him with my life. I could feel his chest rise and fall beneath the thickness of his jacket, and knew I was holding on too tight, but he didn’t try to loosen my grip.

As we rounded a curve, I mustered up the courage to pull my gaze from the road to appreciate the view—something I realized I’d never noticed from this perspective before. I was always driving.

The bay was beautiful. A giant freighter dominated the waters just off the Port of Oakland, and I was struck by its beauty. The sun was beginning to set, and the evening fog had started to roll in, casting a dark, sinister hue across the hull of the ship, and I wondered how many times I’d missed this haunting beauty.

We sped on through the congested traffic, and in record time had made it across the bridge. We parked, and I reluctantly peeled my arms from around his chest, feeling a bit guilty for the suffering I’m sure he endured. We enjoyed a short night out and soon returned to the bike for the ride home.

Once again, I was nervous. This would be the first time I’d ridden in the dark, and I had no idea what to expect. A man of few words, my helmeted pilot offered no hints as to what I should expect, only gently suggested I loosen my grip, if I could.

So I did.

The cool night air peppered my face with its foggy mist, as headlights and taillights trailed by us in glowing tendrils. This time, my hands in his pockets, my shoulders relaxed and I felt connected to him, the bike, and the road. I looked ahead, and tried to predict how he’d move through traffic, and within a matter of seconds we were in sync.

My heart swelled in my chest with excitement and wonder, and I felt a joy so pure, I nearly cried. It felt like flying, and I never wanted it to stop.

And, just as quickly as the ride had begun, it ended. He pulled up to my house, and I climbed off the back of the bike. My feet hit the ground, and reality came rushing back.

I unlocked my front door, hearing him speed away, my heart once again, out of sync.

 

Photo courtesy of YouDidntDidYou

Fictional Fears

Fiction terrifies me.

I love it, and I want to be it, so badly. But I just don’t have it in me.

Reasons why I can never (but am cursed to always desire to) write fiction:

1. I have a shitty vocabulary

2. I haven’t read all the classics

3. I’ve never written anything more than 30 or 40 pages (and I’m pretty sure 20 of them were nonsense)

4. I don’t know how

You get the idea. And yes, I realize all my “reasons” are crap. Yet, every time I sit down at this desk, and try, try, try, to just WRITE something, the result feels hollow and contrived.

I’ve been reading Stephen King’s memoir On Writing, and I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that one of my favorite authors could speak to me about the craft, in a way that just made sense. Nothing he says is really all that new, but somehow, his honesty, vulnerability and confidence (not to mention, the man has written a few good books in his time) suddenly translated into a language I could understand.

Since I started reading On Writing I’ve been haunted by this need to write. This feeling that I have something to say–which I’ve had many times before–but now overrode every other desire, and demanded satisfaction.

About a year ago, I wrote about my frustration with going days, (ok, sometimes weeks) without writing a single word, and how hopeless and empty that made me feel.

Now, I understand why. I do have something to say. And, while it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world if millions of people lined up at bookstores to buy my words, bound in paper and ink, that isn’t why I wrote them.

I wrote because, at some magical moment, words had found themselves on a page.

In the midst of a fleeting epiphany, nearly gone before I can mark the occasion, something is said, and somehow, the words come together to form coherent sentences and ideas. And, if I’m lucky, a reader will actually enjoy the experience when reliving that moment through virgin eyes.

I hesitated writing this post, for fear my declaration would curse me to decades more, filled with the urge to write, but never able to translate that urge into words. Yet, the moment I say those words, I realize this is a necessary evil, if I’m ever to get past this hurdle.

Fiction and me

But tonight, my fears slinked home, empty handed, tail between its legs. Tonight, I wrote my first piece of fiction.

Me. Fiction.

I’ve typed, erased, and typed those words a dozen times, but it can’t be unwritten. I wrote something tonight, and I know it’s good, because it felt good writing it. (It also didn’t hurt that Liz said she liked it too–thanks Lizzie.)

Fear was just an excuse

My lesson this evening was pretty simple. I’d mistaken respect for fear, and they’re two completely different animals–at least they should be. I let all my insecurities about my legitimacy as a writer, dictate my path, keeping me from simply trying. Just trying. No one was going to judge me. No one would ever see anything I wrote if I didn’t choose to let them. There was absolutely no risk. No reason to be afraid, at all.

But, once I let go of those fears, and settled into my acceptance that I don’t have a clue how to write fiction, I immediately realized the truth. Just because I held the craft in such high esteem, didn’t mean I was forbidden to try. And, if I respected the craft, which I do, it was my responsibility to learn. I had been demonizing my respect for storytelling by dressing it up as something ugly and overwhelming, and calling it “fear”. But that really wasn’t it at all.

Fear was just an excuse.

 

Photo courtesy of : Ginny

 

 

FearLess Reader—Maria

Fear has been a very important part in my life. It has always been the signpost that pushed me to move towards it.

Being a very shy and introverted person, it was expected that I had trouble interacting with people, resulting being very bad at the socializing skills. That’s why one of my biggest fears has always been to interact with people successfully.

The first time I faced my fear.

School and high school were pretty bad in terms of developing these socializing skills. Once you start being a certain way it’s very difficult to change form one day to the other, or from one school year to the next. So I was looking forward to start college to have a fresh start. New people, new life, new attitude. I wanted to put into practice being nice, talking to people, and making friends.

However, all my happiness went away on the first day of class, when I met my own particular nemesis from high school, one of the guys that used to make fun of me and my nervousness when I had to articulate a whole sentence in public.

For him I was “the mute”. And all I had wanted was to leave “the mute” times behind. Then, I felt that all the strength I had been collecting for that beginning in college just crumbled at my feet. I was sure he was gonna talk about me to the other classmates, and hence behaving differently from my usual shyness seemed then impossible.

The first semester was quite solitary, and frustrating again. I didn’t find the courage to talk to anybody.

And then the Christmas holidays arrived, and a class dinner was organized. I knew the place and the time but I hadn’t talked to anybody during the 3 months. I was like a ghost. How was I gonna make an appearance?

I debated for weeks, and couldn’t sleep. I was always picturing the worst case scenario: Entering the place with all the people staring at me in silence.

The evening came. I still didn’t know what to do. I was expecting stares and silence when I appeared, but I still knew that I had to do it if I wanted something to change. That was the opportunity. I was shit scared when I was walking towards the restaurant. But, then I arrived and yes, it wasn’t easy—the groups were already made and some environments are friendly than others, and lets say that my hometown is not the most open and welcoming and easy to make friends, it goes by connections, you don’t talk to strangers.

Anyway, the result? I met my friend, one that has become one of my best, and I had fun! The situation didn’t change that much but I had a couple of people I talked to. I made a couple of friends.

But the best outcome of all, was how I felt about myself. I felt proud of myself and somehow I got addicted to that feeling.

Since then, I recognize very well that when something scares me it’s something I must do. So I do it. Because I can’t bear the feeling of disappointing myself.

Since then:

– I was scared to go to England to work. It was my first job and the first time I left the country. I was scared to accept the offer, that’s why I accepted.

– I was scared to apply for that job with a high school in France, in case I was accepted and had to move there, and face a teenagers class. So I applied. I got the job. I moved there and I faced the class full of teenagers. And that was the one of the highlights in my life and the beginning of my teaching career.

– I was afraid of leaving my boyfriend in France and pursue my teaching career in Spain, because I couldn’t find any teaching jobs in France. So, I left France and improved my teaching experience while the relationship with my boyfriend went bust.

– I was petrified of leaving my comfortable teaching job in Spain and follow love. So, I followed love and had the time of my life.

– I was afraid of leaving a stable paycheck for being self-employed. Few months of reflection were enough to find the courage to leave that job and start scheming the next move towards being self-employed and free of the ties that living in a fixed place with a fixed job implied.

– I was scared to start traveling and lose a place to call home, so I booked a flight.

 

Now, do I have any fears? Yes, one and constant. I am afraid of not being strong enough to keep up with the way of life I want to have, so I keep moving out of my comfort zone because I know that even if is exhausting sometimes, the rewards are so satisfying that there is no chance for me to stop anymore.

Overcoming fear is so addictive!

Maria is a girl after my own heart—constantly looking inward, she’s relentless in her quest to better understand the life that surrounds her, including her own. Although she claims to fear much, I’ve rarely seen her give in to it, which is constant motivation for me, and I’m sure others as well. You can find Her Fearlessness on Twitter @DianadeBelflor, or if you’d like brush up on your Spanish, she’s a great teacher.