My personal and professional experiences lead me to believe that all living things are inclined towards happiness, born to be happy, and to experience our species’ unique concept of joy; flowers turn toward the sun, so does my lazy, luscious cat. Babies smile very early and laugh almost immediately thereafter. If nothing bad happens to wound or harm us, we continue to seek and express happiness. For many people however, something bad did happen, and that bad thing can trap us in a negative, fearful, bitter memory field, kind of frozen state of time where nothing moves forward, creativity is stifled, and happiness cannot live. So then…as we practice gratitude, we add the practice of Acceptance.
Remember, the past cannot be altered or deleted. Our past is a long string of events and experiences, and if we call those events and experiences “interesting,” with interesting defined as neither good nor bad, then we can move closer to acceptance, and acceptance frees us, moves us forward into a future of our own design. Willingness to let go of the past, to change, to take risks, to be happy is difficult and scary at times, but it opens the doors of Health, Happiness, and Peace. We get to decide whether we want to stay stuck in a painful past or not. One of the difficulties of choosing happiness is that we have to give up a lot of resentments, blame, fear, excuses, and self-righteousness even.
Acceptance changes the picture. We can accept that our past happened but refuse to let it define us. We can accept that it was horrible, but refuse to continue being victimized. Anger and grief are terribly heavy burdens. Deciding not to carry them around anymore is the best gift we can ever give ourselves.
Let’s consider the Serenity Prayer of Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-Step programs. God, grant me the Serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the Courage to change the things I can, and the Wisdom to know the difference. Regardless of whether a person has an impulse control disorder (alcoholism, sexual addiction, compulsive spending/debting, gambling) or not, the Serenity Prayer is the best life tool I know. Breaking it down, what are things that I cannot change? To name a few: the past, other people, the weather, tragic events–truth is, the only things that I have any control over belong to me, my words, my attitude, my behavior, my ability to be happy regardless of what is happening around me. I don’t have to be happy about my lack of control; I just have to accept it in order to have peace within. The courage to change the things I can requires that I look at myself first and then at the world around me. This does require courage, taking personal responsibility, questioning whether I might actually be wrong in a conflict with someone else, I might need to apologize! I might have to find the courage to take on a social problem, notice the hungry and homeless, advocate for justice….And the wisdom to know the difference means being awake and aware, conscious of what is in my control and what is not, and being willing to accept that; it is the art of noticing the background and foreground in order to enjoy the whole picture.
Happiness is both simple and complex. It sometimes flows like a river, and it sometimes dries up for awhile. It requires attention and practice. It requires faith that we will be able to handle whatever falls on us. It requires intention, willingness, gratitude and acceptance, and best and worst of all, it requires forgiveness.
I began my social work career in a small coal mining town in Appalachia. The area was remote and desperately poor, and the trauma stories my clients shared were horrifying. My job was to work with victims of crime and abuse; it had never occurred to me that there is no limit to what humans will do to other humans and animals. Day after day I listened and discussed stories of murder, rape, incest, torture, beatings, severe mental illness, brutality on an unimaginable scale, and over the course of a year and a half, I became a highly informed and specialized trauma therapist, and a very different kind of person. Trauma changes everything. Some days I could barely remember that happiness still existed in the world, but I remember being stunned by the sheer courage and resilience of the ‘victims.’ Looking back on that work experience, I never encouraged clients to forgive their monsters although we worked on acceptance. In my later work experiences however, I began to introduce the concept of forgiveness as necessary to the healing process. I remember one woman looking at me like I was an alien and angrily telling me that she would never in a million years forgive the man who had brutalized her. Our dialogue went like this:
Me: I know it’s very early to talk about forgiveness. I’m just letting you know that we’ll proceed in that direction.
Client: It’s not going to happen.
Me: Maybe it will, maybe it won’t. I’m just asking you to consider it as we work together.
Me: The guy who hurt you probably doesn’t deserve forgiveness, but you deserve to be able to forgive him. Your hatred and revenge fantasies do not keep him awake at night. I know you want him to feel the same hurt he made you feel, but he never will, because if he had the ability to feel that, he would never have done those things to you in the first place. I hope you’ll be able to say, yes those things happened, but I survived because I am a strong woman, and I deserve to be happy. Let’s try to make meaning of your experience and help you move on.
I have been through that same dialogue many times with many men and women. I believe that happiness is a fundamental human right. I don’t believe that happiness needs to be full-time, because pain and sorrow are important contributors to emotional growth, maturity, and wisdom, so my definition of a good life is to be able to say that I am happy more often than not.
Perhaps to refuse forgiveness is to refuse happiness. It might be like holding onto a shard of sharp, broken glass and continuing to cut into our own flesh indefinitely. Let’s talk about it!