The Happiness Quotient

My 6-1/2-year-old granddaughter Caroline is often saying witty things, and many times she has unknowingly given me perfect quotes for my blog. Recently she told me that every morning in her kindergarten class, the students sit in a circle and a designated child starts the go-round of “good mornings.” She said, for instance, one day if she were chosen to start, she would turn to her left and say, “Good morning, Josh,” and he would say, “Good morning, Caroline,” then Josh would turn to his left and say, “Good morning, Emily,” and Emily would say, “Good morning, Josh,” then turn to her left, and so on. In relating this ritual to me, Caroline said all was well and good, except one boy had to mess it up, because when his turn came, he said impatiently, “GOOD MORNING TO EVERYBODY IN THE WORLD!” With this, Caroline reported that she told him he couldn’t say something like that, because there people in the world for whom it was night, not morning.

Although this story reflects Caroline’s wonderful thinking pattern, I was intrigued by the boy who wanted to get it all over with at one time and wish everyone happiness. I remember as a child saying my bedtime prayers, and, growing tired of the litany of asking God to bless loved ones by name, would just say, “God bless everyone in the world. Amen.” I figured that covered it.

I’ve been considering the happiness of the world this week, as well as the happiness of those close to me. I have had two long long-distance phone calls with people I love who are hurting and frustrated because of things that have come up in their lives that they neither wanted nor deserved, but are having to deal with on a daily basis. My heart broke for them and I was overpowered with a helpless feeling as they described events and situations which made them angry, depressed, confused, and worried - and about which I could do nothing but listen empathetically.

Eugene V. Debs is given credit for saying, “As long as one man is in prison, I am not free,” to which one person commented it was “because of his emphasis on shared responsibility.” In the Journey to Simplicity, through trial and error, angst and forgiveness, introspection, and examination of my priorities, I have finally come to a state of relative contentment with my life. Everything seems to be going great - I love our little house together and our marriage. Our kids are grown, healthy, intelligent, capable. We have two healthy and precocious granddaughters and another precious but unknown-gender grandbaby on the way. We aren’t rich, and there are times I worry about finances to cover emergencies, but we have always been able to pay our bills on time. I love my job, I feel for the most part appreciated for what I do there, I enjoy the MT profession, and I am thankful for the good health insurance I receive from the hospital. I have generally come to terms with the aging process, and can still feel grateful that Ed and I are healthy enough to get out and shovel a foot of snow. I have people in my life who make me laugh (most appreciated!) and people who love me in spite of my flaws. Most days, I am surprisingly content and happy with my life.

And that’s the catch - because I don’t live on an island, in a cocoon, or anywhere else where I’m cut off from those I love who are hurting; indeed, I see daily on the news the people in the world whose lives are less than ideal, who are hungry, dying, separated from family, losing their children to starvation and disease and war. How do we find the balance between being happy while others are not? How do we reconcile our personal contentment with the daily frustrations of those we love?

I realize a lot of folks, when met with disaster, tragedy or sorrow, look up and say plaintively, “Why me???” But I’ll bet there are also folks (maybe even some in that same group) who, when blessed with health, security, and contentment, cry out, “Why me???” I don’t deserve to be this lucky/happy/healthy/satisfied, if how I’ve lived my life is a prerequisite for happiness. And my loved ones - these dear ones who have been two of the most caring people I know - are stuck in situations that sadden them on a daily basis. How can I be truly happy when others are hurting?

Ed’s favorite motto is “Life is not fair. Get over it.” From the Bible’s Job to Harold Kushner and his book Why Bad Things Happen to Good People, life’s inequities have confused human beings for a long time. Some folks explain it away by reincarnation, others “karma,” and others don’t even think about it. But today, I’m not concerned so much with why it happens. I’m more concerned with my reaction to when it happens. I have come to the realization that my happiness will always be tempered by the sadness that others are experiencing at the very same moment.

It is this balance I am seeking - the balance to enjoy my contentment at the same time I am grieving with others in their pain. It doesn’t help to say platitudes like “Pain just shows courage,” “This too shall pass,” “You’ll get your heavenly reward for the trials you’ve endured.” As Ed likes to say, “It’s hard to think about the beauty of the swamp when you’re up to your neck in alligators.”

Can we be truly happy when others are hurting? I don’t know. But I carry the sadness of these two loved ones in my heart every day as I appreciate my own life circumstances - and that’s just, as Walter Cronkite would say, the way it is.