“There are things that are too big for us humans: pain, loneliness and death, but also beauty, sublimity and happiness. For them we created religion. What happens when we lose it? Those things are still too big for us.” —Pascal Mercier
I stride through the supermarket on a mission. It’s Friday evening. I want to get home to my family, have a glass of wine with Caroline and cook a slow weekend dinner. I’m in a hurry, but a good one. I run into a few people, exchange greetings. Hudson’s a small town.
Everyone’s smiling at me. What’s that all about? I smile back. Feels good. I’m making eye contact. I turn an aisle and almost knock down a burly working guy. Before he has a chance to react I grab his eyes with mine and squeeze a smile into them.
Who is this? No, not him. I mean me.
Once upon a time, my greatest wish was to be invisible. I found it easier to presume most people were hostile. Eye contact was a necessary evil. I was well into middle age when my daughter Melanie urged me to turn up the corners of my mouth. “They’re always down in a frown,” she said. I went to the mirror and stared. She was right! I’d been looking in mirrors for years and never seen that. How could it be?
Forcing the facial muscles didn’t work. I pushed fruitlessly against long habit. The frowning was etched in my face by years of deflection. Gradually, I found the stress behind it and let go one grimace at a time. A smile began to reveal itself. In time, my eyebrows relaxed too. The clouds lifted. I liked people.
The memory of unhappiness is opaque, like a dream; it doesn’t really hurt, at least not directly. What’s more disturbing is the absence of happy memories, years gone by with no emotional trace.
My mother wouldn’t like me writing this down for the world to see. She meticulously concealed all her disappointments behind a gracious smile and a lightly spoken, “never mind.” She never fooled me though. My siblings followed in her footsteps but I was the black sheep.
Unhappiness is socially incorrect. It’s messy, it embarrasses others. It’s inconsiderate. In polite society one can emote only so much, preferably by being cheerful. Disdaining that social nicety got me into all sorts of trouble, but in the long run it was a blessing. I’ve been more confused in life by my self than anything else, but I learned one thing: hide an emotion from the world and you hide it from yourself too.
That’s a tragedy, plain and simple. To be out of touch with your own emotion is to put it beyond reach. How can you change what you don’t acknowledge? Thoughts adapt to argument and experience, but emotions have to express themselves one way or another. Suppressed anger becomes resentment. Deflected sadness turns into depression.
But who will listen to all your self-doubt and inner wrangling? Friends like that are few and far between.
Many people settle for acquaintanceships, thinking they’ve missed out on real friendship, or are unfit for it. It’s easier to play by the nice rules and remain in good standing, but spending your time safely like this distracts from the opportunity to share the big questions of happiness and unhappiness with a real intimate. Meanwhile, time is passing.
Even the most familiar of acquaintances is very different from a friend. Friends are those who tell you what you don’t want to hear when you don’t want to hear it, and know how to get it in your ear. They commiserate. They’re people who’ve been as baffled by their own lives as you are by yours. They’ve faced up to their own unhappiness. They know we’re all only human.
That’s why, when I teach a Quiet Mind workshop, I feel so at home. I sit with people who are eager to explore all sides of themselves, not just the pleasantries.
And at home, I’m truly blessed by my family. They tell me all the stuff I don’t want to hear and that no one else want to tell me. I love them for it. There’s no greater gift. Sometimes it’s tough, but in the end it makes me smile. Really.