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Happiness, The New Normal, and Other Common Myths

Updated: Jan 10, 2020

Happiness is a myth. I should know. I have paid the ultimate price for my liberation from it. It is a thing of bedtime stories, the proverbial carrot always dangled before us, designed and marketed to keep us grasping, to keep us hungry, to keep us pupal. In the myth of happiness, it is always out there. It is always somewhere else. It is a place, a destination, and our arrival is ever imminent and yet never truly materializes. I chased the carrot of happiness for a long time. I believed in the myth. I was only ever an achievement away. Just one more success story and then ... BAM! I would arrive at Destination Happiness. Picture a resort island filled with beautiful, enlightened people, tan and smiling, free of pain, sadness, ego. It would be a forever vacation from the cares of the world. So saturated in its golden rays, I wouldn't even notice the inconveniences of human living. I would be the picture of serenity, unruffled, smooth and straight as an arrow embedded in the heart of the bullseye.

I was so busy looking for it out there on the horizon, that I never even realized how happy I already was.

When Evelyn died, when I found her body, all paradigms were shattered. I could not, cannot, look away. The horizon ceased to matter. Out there ceased to exist. That mystical, careless island faded entirely from view. The myth of happiness died with her.

I was left with the striking realization that I could never be completely, entirely happy now. (You can read more about that in my post The Measure Withheld.) There will always be a missing piece. Not a small, rounded jigsaw-puzzle-size piece made of colorful soft cardboard, but a giant, jagged, bleeding piece made of flesh and bone, of heart and soul. A piece that can't be ignored or overlooked. Without it, without her, my world is incomplete. And broken things have no place at Destination Happiness. They disrupt the accord. They shatter illusions. They remind the guests of everything they'd rather forget.

In the months since her death, I have needled at the space this myth once held the way you run your tongue over the gap left by a lost tooth. I have examined its contours, probing for something I cannot define. And I have had a quiet awakening, a slow and burning revelation that grows with each passing day. Happiness was never available to me at all. Not in the way we have mythologized it. Not as an absolute. There is no island resort, no destination, no imminent arrival. Success cannot carry you there, or beauty, or wealth. Neither can meditation, or mindfulness, or the right diet, or even saving the planet. Nothing exists that can make that myth real because it is built on the lie that we can somehow overcome our human experience.

Suffering, loss, pain, hardship—these are every bit as much woven into the program of humanity as are joy, abundance, gratitude, love. We will never transcend them. We can accept them, find better ways to cope with them, love ourselves through them, but we don't get to bypass them. Some may be considered luckier than others. I pray you never know the heart-anguish of losing a child. But no one escapes them entirely.

You will lose. You will fail. You will hurt. The space in between where you learn to smile again, where you lean on those who love you, where you breathe deeply into the profundity of the present moment—that is your taste of happiness. That is the closest you will ever get. Savor it.

Knowing I can never know a transcendent, eternal happiness without my daughter alive has freed me from the rat race of trying. You can't imagine the energy that is saved when we stop chasing the myth of what will never be. It's like buying a ticket to get off a train that keeps running on a circular track. But the cost of de-admission was far too high. I wouldn't have paid it at all if given a choice.

With happiness off the table, I must be settling into—or settling for—the new normal, right? The new normal is touted as life after grief. It's not five stars and there's no built-in vista, but it has decent reviews, clean sheets, and maid service. Enough to at least get comfortable again. I hate this expression, new normal. I think it should be reserved for the deaths of great-aunts from out-of-state, old dogs who stain the carpets, and celebrities from the last decade whom you've never even met. The skinned-knee equivalent of loss. That will heal. You will go on much as you did before, maybe with a little scar and a good story, maybe without.

There is nothing "normal" about child loss or traumatic loss. That is the wave of realization that comes crashing over you as you sniff their clothes, finger locks of their hair, and sit weeping in their empty rooms. It will never be normal again. You don't heal, not in the way our culture likes to define healing. You bleed eternally. You cry every day for the rest of your life. You breathe pain and desperation and a longing that nothing can satiate. Your woundedness defines you, engulfs you, becomes you. It never goes away—the ache, the hitch in the throat, the rapid-eye blink to hold back tears, the understanding that at any given moment everything can change in the worst imaginable way possible. There is nothing about this existence that is normal. Not old normal, not new normal.

This concept of "the new normal" is just another way our culture tries to sweep the reality of loss under the rug, tries to hide the truth of death and mortality from itself. It is another way to convince ourselves that "it" can't happen to us, we are immune, inoculated, removed. It is a distancing technique and it is offensive. It invalidates the truth of our experience and every overwhelming feeling that comes with it. My dead child is the pink elephant in every room I enter. Telling me to settle into "the new normal" is like asking me to throw a tablecloth and a potted plant over that elephant and pretend it's an end table. I'd rather just call it what it is. It is horrific. It is excruciating. And it is permanent. I realize I'm not painting a pretty picture, but my life is not a Thomas Kinkade painting. And neither is yours if you were honest about it.

It's weird how grief tears the veils from your eyes. It is a kind of brutal clarity, as though you had just had surgery to regain your sight after a lifetime of blindness, and a freakishly strong, deeply unhappy nurse with forty years of experience and zero bedside manner decides to rip your bandages off in one, overzealous go with no warning. Suddenly, in a burst of agony, you are swimming in light and color that your mind can't even begin to process. I imagine it like that point where water is so hot it feels cold and you don't realize it's burning you until it's too late—the point where the spectrum folds in on itself and becomes an ellipses. It is a light so bright it looks dark. There is no adjustment period. Just a new kind of blindness you aren't prepared for.

There are a thousand fallacies and myths surrounding grief. We're so scared of our own end that we can't even name it. They are lost, they passed, they're asleep. I do it too. It's hard to say her name and "died" in the same sentence. The finality sucks the air from my lungs. Your death is seeded in you from the moment you come into the world. It's there right now, biding its time. You can't run from it but you'll try. I stopped running in early August when Evelyn's death stopped waiting. I am grateful, if the loss is inevitable, to at least be free of all the running and chasing that defined life before. I don't have the energy for it now. Perhaps I am closer to living than I ever have been.

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