Secrets of the Second List

Everyone enjoys the sweet stuff in life: the love, the joy, the fun, the excitement, those times when life is giving us exactly what we’d hoped for, or more than we’d ever imagined. Nobody wants the tough stuff: the pain, loneliness, confusion, fear, shame, doubt, guilt, suffering, those times when life is taking from us more than we think we can bear. That seems perfectly logical, after all. Why would anyone want anything off the second list?

The thing is, when you crave the good and feel aversion for the challenging, you’re bound to suffer because life brings both. Many people go through this experience of being human as victims of circumstance, happy when things are going well, and depressed when they aren’t; there’s no power in that. Of course there are things so knifing in this world, they rip your heart apart, and you do whatever you can to survive and find your way back to love, somehow. I’m not talking about those incredibly heartbreaking events. I’m talking about the normal ups and downs of life. If you don’t gain some mastery over your mind, you’ll believe your happiness and your unhappiness are the result of things outside your control.

Most of the time, happiness is a choice, but we have to define our terms. Happiness to me is being at peace. Waking up and feeling grateful for, and excited about the life you’re living, even if, and maybe especially if, everything isn’t going exactly the way you’d like. Happiness is knowing yourself well, and deeply. It’s tapping into your gifts, and sharing them any way you can. It’s knowing what’s true for you, being able to speak about that kindly but with conviction. It’s having relationships in your life with people you love, and we have to define that term, too. Love meaning the ability to see and understand clearly the people with whom we’re close, being able to accept them and cherish them and celebrate them for exactly the people they are, and not for our ideas about who we’d like them to be someday, if only. Happiness is knowing you also have people in your life who really see you and hear you and want nothing more than your full expansion so they have that much more of you to cherish. The things that define happiness are inside, they aren’t outside, and they can’t be taken from you over a bad day, or a tough week, or a rough chapter in your life. (With the exception of those gut-wrenching tragedies I mentioned above. Those could throw anyone off their happiness game for a good long while.)

How do you get to happy? Strangely enough, I think you have to have experienced at least some of the pain on list number two. Pun intended. For most people there’s a time when you come up against it, whatever it may be for you. It could be that things don’t gel personally; relationships with family members, romantic partners and friends are fraught with disappointment, dysfunction, and pain. Or it could be a struggle to find your purpose, to find the meaning in life for you. Very few people sail through, healthy and whole and unscathed, knowing themselves well, and ready to rock it. Many people are so attached to the idea of happiness, they seek it and chase it and work for it like it’s a destination or a possession, or the result of having or doing the right stuff, and because they long for happiness, they run in the other direction when the painful parts arrive. We aren’t taught that the painful parts are markers for where we have healing to do. We don’t talk about the need to heal as a prerequisite for happiness. We talk about houses and cars and diets. You want to know why? It’s a lot easier to chase that stuff than it is to turn around and face your dragons; your fears, your insecurities, your doubts about yourself, and life, and what the point of it all is. Life presents big questions, some you can answer if you’re willing to be brave, and some you won’t know for sure until you exhale for the final time, but if you pretend they don’t exist, you’re living in a false reality. I don’t believe you can experience happiness there.

You have so much power in this regard. Many people rob themselves of the chance to feel it, though. Your power lies in your ability to face reality as it is, to look with your eyes, your mind, your heart and your hands wide open. Not to turn away. Not to deny, or cling or re-write or insist or manipulate or will it to be a different way, but just to look, and to breathe, and to let the tears spill when they come. To hold the fear even though it sears your hands and your heart. Holding it and breathing is the key to releasing the heat so that stuff doesn’t own your ass. So you don’t have to be on the run from those things you’re trying to hide from the world, and even from yourself. People on the run aren’t happy. People in denial aren’t, either. People who numb out are numb. If you want to be happy, you have to feel, and you can’t just cherry-pick the good stuff. You have to be willing to feel it all. The places that are painful will become less so if you give them your kind attention, a lot less so. No one can force you to do it. You have to want to do it. You may need to try the other path first, I certainly did. You may have to try buying your happiness or amassing it or starving yourself for it. You may have to seek it in others, but eventually, if you really want it, you’ll have to sit with yourself.

The dark night of the soul is not easy and it’s not fun, it hurts. It’s lonely and scary and confusing and you’ll meet storms of shame and guilt along the way. You may find in the very eye of the storm the belief that you are somehow unworthy of love, or easy to leave, or fill in the blank. If you look in that eye long enough, you’ll see it’s a lie, it’s not even real, it’s made of vapors, and this very funny thing will happen. You’ll find you’re smiling through your tears and you can take that happy on the road with you. You’ll find a perspective shift in most cases, where your eyes and your mind go to everything you do have, that is going well. You’ll look at the people in your life with a new appreciation and understanding, and a lot more compassion and empathy, because this work of being a happy human is not easy, it takes enormous determination but it’s totally doable.

Wishing you the strength to be happy, and sending love,

Ally Hamilton

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