Anchors of Happiness

star-gazing.jpg

We’ve all read about how experiences are better gifts for your kids than toys, but I really liked the way this study put it: holidays with your family are “happiness anchors” in your memory that have lasting effects on your psyche. Now that I’m a parent, I realize how much work my own parents put into arranging special trips for us–not necessarily the giant, Disney-type extravaganzas that most people talk about, but everything from beach vacations to day trips and little rituals at home. Here are some of the moments anchored in my mind.

  • I remember being woken up in the middle of the night to go see comets, eclipses, and meteor showers. I remember driving out to the countryside, being a little scared in the empty darkness but feeling safe with my big brothers, guarding my eyes against the passing headlights to preserve my night vision.
  • I remember road trips that my father planned meticulously, always making sure we’d be near the best delis at lunch time. I treasured a Bazooka Joe comic in Hebrew from a Jewish deli in Connecticut for years.
  • I remember trips to mines and quarries: a boat ride on an underground river, a cold cave pool that never saw the light of day, and giant loose chunks of mica free for the gathering.
  • I remember hours and hours of reading out loud before bedtime: Narnia and Robin Hood with my mother, Tolkien and Homer with my father. Just one more chapter, please!
  • I remember one glorious time when someone offered us a free dumpster full of books that survived a fire, and my father couldn’t resist. We parked it in our driveway and climbed in and dug around for treasures all week.
  • I remember science museums, art museums, planetariums, zoos, aquariums, beaches, mountains, operas, concerts–but also so many small things that my parents probably thought were no big deal: helping my father organize books for a book sale. Science experiments with my mother. I even have deeply happy memories of my bi-weekly turn to come along on the grocery shopping and get to pick the flavor of soda for weekend dinners.

I’m writing these down mostly to remind myself that my kids don’t need big fireworks from me. Today my six-year-old got to come–just him!–to Walmart to buy diapers, and we stopped for a little snack and a chat afterwards (“Subway is the best restaurant ever, Mama!”). My four-year-old is thrilled because she got to do “cutting practice” today (something my mother used to do for me),

Tovah cutting

and my two-year-old is just happy that I watched her do a trick. (“Watch this, Mama! SAME TRICK!”) They will remember the vacations and the expensive trips, but they’ll remember the little things too.

Advertisements

“Experiences too deep for deception”

I’m reading Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, about a psychologist’s experience in a concentration camp. I was immediately struck by this quote from Gordon Allport’s preface:

[Living in the concentration camps,] how could he find life worth preserving? A psychiatrist who personally has faced such extremity is a psychiatrist worth listening to…..Dr. Frankl’s words have a profoundly honest ring, for they rest on experiences too deep for deception.

That sums up exactly why I wanted to read this book. I want to hear why life is worth living from someone who has seen the most suffering that life can offer. I want to hear from someone who can truly understand the temptation to suicide or despair. I don’t want to hear from someone who feels hopeful because they see some good that came out of their suffering, or some lesson that they learned from it, or because they see it as some form of discipline or redemptive suffering that will make sense from the viewpoint of heaven. I want to hear from someone who was able to find meaning and joy in the middle of absolute desolation.

Auschwitz_survivor_displays_tattoo_detail.jpg

I first started thinking about this when I read this beautiful article by a woman who held her dying newborn. I was really captivated by it because she did not write about the happiness that came from knowing her daughter was going to heaven, or a positive outlook that allowed her to appreciate the few hours she had with her, or because she learned a spiritual lesson from her experience; instead, she was granted the grace of feeling the joy of heaven on earth, right in the middle of her suffering.

I was flooded with peace. I was filled with the deepest joy I have ever felt. I could not understand why sorrow and grief had occupied any inch of my body before that instant. This was a different world….We were right inside the heart of God.

To me, this was an assurance that the promise of joy is true. Because of her situation, this mother’s story was “too deep for deception.” I have never felt this joy, but I believe her, because the circumstances of her witness make it reliable. As she writes:

[I]f I could share only a sliver of what it felt and breathed and loved like in that NICU room, you would never again fear any doubt of the divine or the existence of an afterlife.

Even when I’m angry at God, I still love the saints. I love their witness of holy joy in every possible circumstance of life. I love Corrie Ten Boom, because she gives us this same assurance of the joy to come: “I’ve experienced His presence in the deepest darkest hell that men can create. I have tested the promises of the Bible, and believe me, you can count on them.” I love the apostles, because, as my mother once told me, the fact that they were willing to be martyred for their faith in Jesus shows their witness can be trusted. They must have seen it with their own eyes if they were willing to die for it, and pass their faith on to others. I love Laura Fanucci, the mother whose newborn died, because she shared with us her firm reason for hope in the midst of unspeakable suffering. And I am loving Viktor Frankl, for the hope he gives me. I’ll leave you with this beautiful image of Frankl’s wife, who became a vision of heaven for him:

Tilly Frankl

My mind clung to my wife’s image, imagining it with an uncanny acuteness….A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth–that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter desolation, when man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way–an honorable way–in such a position man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment. For the first time in my life I was able to understand the meaning of the words, “The angels are lost in perpetual contemplation of an infinite glory.

 

 

 

Image of Tilly Frankl on her wedding day: source

Linkup! How to Tell if You’re Depressed

Hope for the future.2

The last time I wrote about postpartum depression, I shared the fact that my struggle was made worse by guilt: motherhood was what I had always wanted, so why wasn’t I thriving? Another mother wrote in to say that she had the opposite problem: she felt guilty because being a stay-at-home mother was not something she had always wanted, and so she blamed her depression on her unpreparedness. My first thought was “oh, my post must not have helped her very much, because she couldn’t relate.” But instead, she found it helpful, because it showed that the fault was not hers; if both of us could be depressed for opposite reasons, the depression must have some origin besides our failings. So true! Your mind can find a reason to make you feel guilty no matter what. Depression can be connected to objective situations, of course; but in the end, it comes on its own and you can never be completely sure why.

I often find comfort in something my mother used to say: If you’re feeling guilty about not being a good enough mother, that means you are a good mother. A bad mother wouldn’t be worrying about it!

I’ve written several times about depression, therapy, and medication (links at the bottom–Wordpress is quirky today), so today I’d just like to focus on how to tell if you’re depressed or just sad, stressed, or have the “baby blues.” These are a few things I’ve noticed through the last few years as indicators of depression; but before all, check with your husband or someone who knows you well! When you’re in the thick of a pregnant, postpartum, breastfeeding, or sleep-deprived state, it can be hard to think straight and realize that you’re not normal. An objective viewpoint is critical.

  • Do you still have a sense of humor? If you’re just having a bad day, you can laugh at things going wrong–maybe not that minute, but at least later on. When you’re depressed, nothing seems funny. Your life is awful and there’s nothing funny about it. Humor doesn’t ease the situation at all.
  • Likewise, when you’re depressed, nothing is cute, not even your kids. Even when they’re acting normally, you’re constantly aggravated and upset by them. You can’t enjoy them at all because you’re sick of them, they’re just things that make your life harder.
  • When you’re having a bad day, you can stop and say to yourself “okay, this day just stinks. Tomorrow will be better. It won’t be like this forever.” When you’re depressed, you don’t have that perspective. You can’t remember things being good before, and you can’t imagine them getting better in the future.
  • When it’s just a bad day, simple pick-me-ups can really help: a change of scenery, a snack, exercise, 5 minutes alone, getting distracted with a project, calling a friend, and so on. When you’re depressed, nothing works. You can do all the right things and still feel lousy. Again, that’s because depression doesn’t necessarily come from external circumstances. Sometimes it just comes. That means that you can’t always chase it away without external help.

My computer is freezing up when I try to insert links, so bear with me:

  • My original maternal depression post, which includes some helpful guidelines for considering therapy, medication, and self-help books:  https://checkoutthatsunset.wordpress.com/2015/05/27/bloghop-good-catholic-moms-and-maternal-depression/
  • My post about making peace with medication, which I was very reluctant to try: https://checkoutthatsunset.wordpress.com/2015/03/09/i-dont-want-to-be-on-a-pill-for-the-rest-of-my-life/
  • My post about some things that helped during rough periods postpartum, mostly suggested by various therapists:  https://checkoutthatsunset.wordpress.com/2016/04/22/7qt-things-that-help/
  • My post about why prayer or spiritual counselling may not be enough to cure mental problems, and how God wants you to take advantage of any help you can get, spiritual, secular, or medical:  https://checkoutthatsunset.wordpress.com/2016/05/13/why-schools-need-real-counselors/

Please click over to Flourish in Hope (http://www.flourishinhope.com/2016/05/30/my-ppd-story/), a wonderful site I’m just discovering, for other moms’ stories, and thank you so much to them and to Katherine at Half Kindled (http://halfkindled.com/) for organizing this! Let’s all keep each other in our prayers.

 

“I don’t know who you are, but you’re welcome to stay.”

Ima and Marta

There have been a lot of comings and goings in our house lately, and my mother, who has Alzheimer’s, can’t keep up. She walked into the living room yesterday, saw my husband playing the piano, and said “oh, are you spending the night too? Well, I don’t know who you are, but you’re welcome to stay.”

Can you imagine being so generous? I’ve heard that when Alzheimer’s strips away everything else, it leaves the core personality. My grandmother, for instance, was reduced to one word near the end, but that word was “honey.” The doctor was impressed. “I’ve heard a lot worse words from Alzheimer’s patients,” he said. “Your grandmother must have been a loving woman.”

Earlier on, when my third baby was a newborn, I was changing her diaper and she peed all over the place. As I tried to gather clean clothes and mop up, she lay there, soaking wet and wailing. My mother rushed in and picked her up anyway. She couldn’t remember the baby’s name at that point, but it didn’t matter. She was a baby who needed to be held.

It seems that my mother has forgotten almost everything but how to love. There’s a high chance that I will get Alzheimer’s myself when the time comes, and I’m scared of what the disease will reveal at my core. I hope that, as with my mother, it will be love.

Uncluttering your Mind

Dishes, Dishwasher, Dirty, Kitchen, Housework, Dish

My mother once said, “being rich won’t make you happy, but being poor can sure make you unhappy.”  I don’t have much to add to this succinct truth, except that I’m discovering it’s true for a lot of things besides money.  In my efforts at detachment and mental peace, I often tell myself that a clean house (or a better schedule, or a better organizing system, etc.) won’t really make me happier, and so it’s pointless to get anxious about them.  But what I’m finding out is that a clean house doesn’t make me happier, but it does take away a big occasion for me to be sad.  When I look around a cluttered or chaotic room, all the unfinished chores and things out of place automatically stress me out.  But when I look around a clean room, all I think is “what a nice room,” and I’m free to go on to other things.  Even the simple visual is important; things piled on top of each other in my house create metaphorical piles of worries in my mind, and an open and clean room clears my mind.

If you’re someone who’s prone to anxiety or depression, it’s okay to make your life easier.  You’re not necessarily trying to find happiness through making more money, or buying nice things for the house, or cleaning up; you’re just taking away things that make it easier for you to be sad.

Oklahoma

We just saw a high school performance of Rogers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma, and I was surprised at how much darker it was than I remembered.  Aside from the cynical humor of the Ado Annie subplot, the story of the brooding, uncouth Jud is really disturbing.  He’s scorned for hiding away in his lonely smokehouse with his dirty pictures, but it’s really unclear how much of this is his fault; do people really treat him like dirt, because he’s the lowly hired hand, or is he just imagining it?  My husband pointed out that he’s not the only one to enjoy dirty pictures or lust after women–Will shows all the cowboys his special picture tube, and even Aunt Eller joins in–but for some reason everyone except Jud is excused because they’re funny, or they’re just boys being boys.

“Everything’s up to date in Kansas City! / They’ve gone about as fer as they could go…”

And when Ali Hakim offers him new pictures to assuage his loneliness, basically telling him “marriage is boring–stick with your porn”–Jud refuses and sings the hearbreaking song “Lonely Room.”

I set by myself
Like a cobweb on a shelf,
By myself in a lonely room.

…a dream starts a-dancin’ in my head.
And all the things that I wish fer
Turn out like I want them to be,
And I’m better than that smart aleck cowhand
Who thinks he is better’n me!

And the girl I want
Ain’t afraid of my arms
And her own soft arms keep me warm.

He ends by rejecting the temptation of the pornography and resolving to turn his longing into action and get a real woman of his own.  I guess they cut this song out of the movie version, so I had never heard it before.  To my mind, it makes him a lot more sympathetic.

“Goin’ outside, / Git myself a bride…”

Later on, when he tries to kill Curly with the hidden knife in the picture tube, I was struck by the fact that the pornographic pictures are used as a symbol of evil and death.  I usually try to not over-analyze movies and books and see symbolism where there isn’t any, but the more I think about it, the more I’m sure that there is a lot of symbolic undertext in Oklahoma.  During Laurey’s dream sequence, there’s a jarring moment when the theme “Kansas City” unexpectedly shows up, introducing a cynical note into Laurey’s idealistic ideas of romance.  And then!  “I’m Just a Girl Who Can’t Say No” begins playing when Laurey suddenly finds herself dancing with Jud.  I think they were trying to show that Laurie has more in common with Ado Annie than she would like to admit.  Annie’s a victim of her own desires and weakness, as well as of the men who take advantage of her, but Laurey coldly takes advantage of Jud, using him as a pawn in her game to get Curly–even though she knows Jud is in love with her.  Because of this she’s partially responsible for everything that happens afterwards, I think.

What’s disappointing is that this theme is introduced but not really followed through.  Laurey continues to be self-absorbed, teasing and humiliating Curley till the very end, and even complaining that Jud’s death is ruining her honeymoon; but she gets her happy ending all the same.  Similarly, Will Parker, even though he’s presented in an unpleasant light with his story of the burlesque in Kansas City, succeeds in demanding Ado Annie’s completely fidelity.  She complains that he is asking for a double standard–fidelity from her, but completely freedom for him–but he never reassures her that his roaming days are over too.  Instead he calms her down by kissing her, which seems to be the moral of the whole show: sex solves everything.  It reminds me of something my mother told me about growing up in the 50’s, when everything was outwardly wholesome and decent, but in reality anything was allowed as long as you maintained the appearance of chastity.  As long as you technically stayed a virgin, you were allowed to “go about as fer as you could could go.”

“You ever had an ‘Oklahoma Hello?'”

I still can’t decide whether Rogers and Hammerstein meant to introduce these themes, but didn’t follow through on them in order to preserve the happy ending, or whether they really didn’t see how degenerate all their wholesome characters were.  It’s still an enjoyable show all around, but I had a much harder time laughing at the jokes this time.

First Aid for an Existential Crisis: Part 1

“Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?” by Paul Gauguin, 1897-98

One of Evelyn Waugh’s novels gives a moving description of a clergyman who’s lost his faith: he can’t figure out why there is something rather than nothing.  If he could only get a sure answer to that question, everything else would fall into place naturally: creation, the Fall, the redemption, the Church of England, and so on–but none of that matters if he can’t figure out why everything began in the first place.

There are times when I am overwhelmed enough by the suffering of the world that the usual apologetics don’t work for me.  Like the clergyman, what I need is a very basic reassurance that a good God exists.  Once that is resolved, everything else eventually follows.

When I was younger, the traditional proof from creation was enough: there must be an ultimate principle of Goodness from which our consciences, and all that is beautiful in the world, draw their goodness.  But, as C.S. Lewis points out in Mere Christianity,

If we used [the created world] as our only clue, then I think we should have to conclude that [God]was a great artist (for the universe is a very beautiful place), but also that He is quite merciless and no friend to man (for the universe is a very dangerous and terrifying place).                                   (Book I, Chapter 5, p.37)

If we rely solely on the goodness of the world for our proof of God, then atheists can counter with their proof from the evil of the world.  And besides, there is a certain point of darkness or depression in which the beauty of the world seems like more of a mockery or a great deceit than a reassurance.  I remember one time, during a study abroad semester in Rome, when I was literally surrounded with every kind of beauty–weather, nature, art, architecture–but I still had trouble thinking of a reason to take the next step up the stairs.  When your interior world is plunged into darkness, the outside world has nothing to say to you.

Here is my first aid prayer for this situation: “Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life.” (John 6:68)  These are the words the apostles used to explain their faithfulness to Jesus, even when the “hard saying” of the Eucharist caused others to turn away.  My wise mother once pointed out that this is sometimes the only response we can manage when God’s will seems completely incomprehensible.  We can’t understand it, but what’s the alternative?  Would you rather believe in a world where every bit of goodness and beauty was actually meaningless?  I wouldn’t.

This doesn’t leave us with a lot of comfort; but it does provide the first step out of desperation.  The world and God’s plan for it may still seem bewildering, but now that we know there is “nowhere else to go,” we have the first principle we were looking for and we can start working on everything else.

In part 2, I want to talk about the next step: how Jesus’ love unto death is the key to interpreting all God’s promises of protection, happiness, and peace, even when everything in the world–or in your life–is consumed by suffering.