On Being Happy

I got a card from my dad’s girlfriend today, a simple blue hue with a line of sailing ships.

A few weeks ago, I had sent my father a handful of Chinese paintbrushes. I’d bought fifty-seven and decided I needed to share the wealth. It took me a month to choose the ones I would send him as I worried his eyesight might have began to fail and they would not be used. My father’s style has always been strong on composition and weak on proportions with distorted hands, awkwardly set noses and squat lines. The colors vary, but the palette always seemed dark and murky, over-mixed, over dramatic as if it were attempting to capture an audience by direct visual assault.

After reading the card, I closed it and realized the simple blue drawing was the docks in Portland where my father has been keeping his two sail boats. I didn’t recognize it as his work. So cheerful. So serene. Even the sea lacked the turbulance I had come to associate with his inner world. Many people had described his life in Dakota running around the reservations in the sixties and seventies, angry and drunk, looking for solutions to the unfairness of life through the American Indian Movement, a marriage that didn’t last, in work he couldn’t maintain. He was a cursed man back then, but now, here he was joyfully painting the docks in Oregon.

Mary, his girlfriend, had enclosed photos of his other paintings. The interior of his boat. Sails. Blue skies. Happiness.

The man I got to know as a young adult was not the man my mother said she knew years before. When her second husband dragged me down the wooden stairs by my arm and slapped my face over and over, I was eleven years old. He demanded to know if I thought I was abused. I had not made up my mind until that moment. I said yes. And he hit me. I said no and he hit me again. It kept going like that for awhile. He was huge. He screamed in my face as I walked across the living room to the front door. He told me my father was an asshole. I wasn’t angry. I was sad that I couldn’t defend a man I didn’t know. My stepfather had never met him either, but he knew my father did not pay the $75.00 per month for the support of my sister and I. Something he wanted to take from our skin.

Whatever the man was like, I figured he could not be much worse than my stepfather. I had seen his paintings of old ships tilted in dark waters that raised up alongside toward the slightly titled mast. Raised by the ocean, I knew the waters never looked so blue and brown at the same time. The ocean was gray or green or blue, but one should never take a pigment like raw umber straight from the tube and set it against a navy toned mixture.

As soon as I could drive, I came to his house demanding to know who he was and ready to show him that I’d exceeded his skill at art, his educational achievements – which were nil, and planned a decent life for myself – no thanks to him. The old man listened, smoked his pipe and started debating philosophy. It worked. I came back. Again and again. All doubts that I was his daughter wafted away with the scent of tobacco. He told me stories of life on the plains that others had told him. I had heard some of them from my grandmother, they were stories of our ancestors, but I had never been old enough to recognize that the animals were metaphors like Aesop’s fables. Teachers read these stories to children. Animism. But the animals that talked in their stories with vibrant drawings were never animals that taught the lessons a specific individual needed at that moment, tailored and reworked from memory for the present. It was as if I only seen snake skins and never snakes.

I found him easy to forgive.

Mary always hovered around him with lunch or ready to interrupt if he was overwhelmed by the conversations with his estranged daughter. She focused him. Her mother had come to the states from Northern India and met her father on a reservation in California. She appeared to be the only person in the world with whom he was entirely vulnerable, although his version of how their relationship worked sounded archaic, mysognistic and left the woman’s eyes rolling where he could not see. They separated for a while when I was in my twenties, but she often came around during that time and they reunited within a year or two, resuming their very simple life together. He asked me once while she was away if he should take her back. I believe he would have found a reason, but he needed to know I would not respect him less. I think I respected him more.

I have often wondered how a person so vilified by my mother and so destructive in his youth could find so much peace in the second half of his life. It’s in his paintings, his voice, his letters and on his face. The calm seas. The cheerful primary colors. I doubt he even used a tube of brown paint on the card I held.

I suppose what I learned from my father about happiness is that it has nothing to do with the material world. It cannot be found in advancing up the ladders of social hierarchies. It’s not in a bottle. It doesn’t come with success or prosperity or any kind, although happiness can precede success and financial stability. Fairness and equality does not create an environment of happiness. No matter how much faith we put in the political process, it cannot change our state of mind. Happiness begins inside and radiates outward. Friends cannot make us happy. It isn’t given or received by others. Although happiness often accompanies love, love is also attracted to happiness, making it impossible to tell which actually comes first to a person’s life. Sometimes, we can’t be happy until we reject people we love and turn away the needs of others we cannot meet.

I think my father found happiness more easily than other people, because he always was a bit contrary and naturally rejected popular wisdom and the status quo.

Popular wisdom will tell you that meaningful relationships are the foundation of mental health, but they never tell you that it’s okay to just walk away from people who are bringing you down or generally reject the parts of society that aren’t working for you. The definition of mental health isn’t being happy, but more like not being so unhappy that you burden other people with it. Those are some exceptionally low standards.

Today, thirteen percent of Americans are on anti-depressants. And I personally suspect the medical community knows as little about helping people find happiness as they do about turning the tide on the obesity epidemic. Science, which I love but do not reduce to dogma, can give us facts gleaned from studies of multiple variables in people’s lives that coexist with happiness, but they do not easily account for the complexity of our consciousness or the murky social world where the filters of our perception and the corrosion of stored and retrieved memories confuse the process of understanding our own emotional experiences.

We know the brain is matter and that thoughts and feelings have chemical and electrical processes, but you cannot find happiness during an autopsy and the complex consciousness that accompanies it is similarly missing in the physical body when its alive. Western thought has not been able to explain this phenomena for many centuries, although the new insight in physics that the world itself is like a hologram, echoes many non-Western views about reality that help our consciousness make more sense.

Earlier this year, I gave up trying to reconcile with my more difficult family members and protect what happiness I could create in my life. I had sought therapy for the process like a good citizen, but I found myself directed to accept mistreatment from other people. I’ve heard so many people subtly imply that their ability to get along with an exe for the sake of their kids or reconcile with a difficult family member or manage their jealousy with an unfaithful partner or cope with an abusive boss is proof that they are mature and well adjusted people. The message is always the same. The problem is not how people treat you, but how you well you handle it. Having worked in schools, I was familiar with the process, because I’d seen the children who reacted most strongly to bullying disciplined. The instigators were only noticed if they failed to cover up their behavior with proper repentance or general subterfuge.

I told my therapist I was satisfied. I’d started therapy to help with a personal crisis over a year before, but he threw a tantrum and yelled at me for firing him. In retrospect, I should have expected it. People encourage quiet suffering and praise us for denying pain, because it keeps the boat from rocking. It feels safe even if you’re slowly sinking. Deny it. Your up to your ankles in sea water. Grab a bucket and start bailing. Don’t swim. You don’t know if you can swim. Don’t even look at the water. Don’t rock the boat.

If there is one thing I learned from my father about how he went from turbulence to inner peace, it’s that you have to live bravely and not fear rocking a sinking boat. It seems so obvious, but do we trust ourselves to know when it’s time to jump?

I have been ridiculously pleased with my life for the last three months. I let go of everything that didn’t work for me including the idea that I could construct happiness by following rules and making other people happy. I headed directly into conflict through uncertain waters. Yes, I have not finished with the sea metaphors. I navigated poorly. I capsized. I weathered a few storms. I believed in my destination. I arrived.

No permission. No approval. Nothing changed, but everything is better.

If happiness is your destination, does it matter as much what else you find there?

make others happy



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