Guest Post: Sarah Intelligator
I live in an incessant state of overwhelming gratitude, undermined by crippling guilt. It’s a weird place—what Camus would likely refer to as the “absurd.”
I know I’m so fortunate to have a career that provides me with financial freedom, but also independence. At the same time, I feel chained to the gargantuan responsibilities and expectations that accompany my profession.
I love my child more than I could have ever expected my heart to be capable of loving. And yet, I give him so much of my love that I feel I have little left for myself. I want the world to be a different place for him and question whether it was selfish of me to bring him into it. Then I think of all the mothers who gave birth to their children at the start of the Holocaust and I’m driven to tears trying to comprehend their unfathomable pain and fear. So, maybe this version of the world isn’t that bad. Or maybe life is always bad and humans just find a way to survive. Maybe I have the luxury of posing such existential questions because my life isn’t truly bad at all.
I try to remember a time when life was happy and easy. It was…I think. What is happy anyway? It’s different for everyone, I suppose. For me, happiness is freedom—freedom to do what I want, when I want. When I feel trapped, I get sad. I do feel happy when I look into my child’s eyes—not that it’s his responsibility to make me happy. I feel gratitude thinking of the love and support that surrounds me.
Despite my gratitude, though, it’s hard to be happy when nothing’s ever enough. If I don’t work out, I’m fat and letting myself go. If I do work out, I feel as though I should be working or spending time with my kid. Or, maybe I didn’t use my time wisely and work out hard enough. If I have a slower work week, I get to spend more time with my kid, but then I feel I’m not contributing financially. If I have a busy work week, I’m contributing financially, but not spending quality time with my kid or preparing nutritious meals for him. If work is busy or I’m being an attentive mom, I’m too tired to be a good wife. If I take the time to get a facial or take care of myself, I feel guilty that I’m not working. No matter what I do, I can’t win. I live in a realm of never good enough. With the standards I set, of course, good enough is impossible.
Sure, I could be like one of those inspirational Instagram posts and “let go” or “just breathe.” Those posts may help people feel better about their miserable, shitty lives. Not me. I know the answer. I have the solution. I would simply need to give myself permission to be okay if I work a little more or a little less, or if I skip a work out, or if I spend a little less time with my kid because I take time for myself. Here’s the thing: I don’t want to. To do so would mean I accept mediocrity. I won’t do it. I refuse to be mediocre.
So, I’m trapped. I can’t free myself from the prison of my own thoughts and self-imposed perfectionism. I find joy in the moments of gratitude in between…the moments of silence when I manage to escape the nagging voice in my head. That’s when I’m free. That’s when I’m happy.
Everyone’s searching for happy. It might be that our definition of happy is the problem. Happy is a feeling. Like all feelings, it’s fleeting. If we expect to ride the constant high of a fleeting feeling, then we’ll be left chasing the high when the come down hits. Maybe, to be happy, we have to accept life is unhappy and just deal with it. Maybe it’s our expectations that are fucking us over. And when, as children, some stupid song teaches us to “clap out hands” or “stomp our feet” without any explanation of what happiness actually is, how are we expected to define it? Are we perpetuating the same existential conundrums in our children? Is this the reason everyone is depressed?
It seems so cliche to ask, “What is happy?” We keep asking because we don’t fucking know. The question seems more rhetorical than, “What’s the meaning of life?”
Yes, happiness is a choice. We can choose to be happy if we decide we want to be. At the same time, if we always have to choose to be happy, then, the implication is that happiness is something that constantly needs to be worked at. And if we’re always working at it, then we are always conscious of the fact that we are unhappy. When happiness becomes a chore, we’re trapped in an inescapable tautological dilemma. Ironically, the act of seeking happiness serves as a reminder of our unhappiness. Trying to be happy makes us less happy.
Chasing “happy” isn’t working. So how do we free ourselves from this bleak Sisyphean cycle? Maybe we just need to stop trying so damn hard.