A Sentimental Education

November 25th, 2014

Because I’ve been sad, I’ve spent a lot of time lately trying to figure out which way happiness lies.

I’ve always been a little obsessed with that subject, which hardly makes me unique. I’ve read a lot of books and articles that say people are really bad at figuring out what makes them happy. We think buying material goods will bring us some kind of long-lasting joy and assume that what sounds good to us today will sound equally good down the road. Neither is true.

What is happiness anyway? Years ago, I said to a friend, “I just want my kids to be happy.” And she wisely pointed out that I wouldn’t actually want my kids to spend their adult lives lying on a beach smoking weed all day long, no matter how blissed-out they might be. So it’s more complicated than “happiness”: I want them to have longterm goals and achieve them; I want them to have families and take good care of them.

Of course, I’m proof that even those things aren’t the complete answer: I have a loving spouse and kids and the luxury of getting to do what I enjoy, and yet I’ve still found myself this fall in the throes of an anxious depression.. Some of it is chemical. Some of it is that there are things going on in the world that are scary. And some of it, I think, is that I had lost the ability to appreciate the things that make life sweet. And that’s what I’m working hardest on getting back.

(A side note: It was challenging for me to write the rest of this. I grew up in the least sentimental family in the U.S. My parents wouldn’t have dreamed of crying at our graduations or weddings–I didn’t even know that people could cry from happiness until the year I watched It’s A Wonderful Life and had to figure out why my cheeks were wet at the end. Anyway, the point is, I feel embarrassed when I say sentimental things, even though I’m well aware I’m not my parents, because when my oldest son graduated from high school, I sobbed so hard I sounded like I was vomiting.)

But here goes (WARNING: SENTIMENTALITY AND POTENTIAL EMBARRASSMENT AHEAD):

What I’m clinging to these days as I drag myself up out of the hole (stop laughing, Johnny) is each and every instance of kindness, affection, love and gratitude between me and others. Yes, I feel like an exposed nerve these days, and that means the smallest touch can hurt, but it also means I’m exponentially more sensitive to the good stuff, too. As I stop focusing on tomorrow–because lately I’ve just been trying to get through one day at a time–I find myself much more aware of, and grateful for, every email from a friend, every encouraging comment on FB, every shared pastry at Starbucks, every stranger who smiles at me instead of shoving by, every good-natured exchange, every moment of solidarity, and every example of generosity, whether it’s directed at me or someone else.

There’s so much in the news that’s sad and scary but so much in my own life that’s decent and affirming. For a while, it felt like I couldn’t see that. I knew it intellectually: I just couldn’t feel it. But this is the strange gift of my own struggles: I’ve become very aware of the choices we all make at every moment of the day–how we can choose to be kind and generous or malicious and selfish–and I’m so grateful that the people I care about make the choice to be kind. I’m pretty sure that kindness, love, and generosity are all we’ve got to fall back on when everything else feels wrong or meaningless, and that every positive interaction makes life that much more livable for all of us. And the more I stop to notice the goodness all around me, the less hopeless I feel.

Happy Thanksgiving y’all.

A Sentimental Education

November 25th, 2014

Because I’ve been sad, I’ve spent a lot of time lately trying to figure out which way happiness lies.

I’ve always been a little obsessed with that subject, which hardly makes me unique. I’ve read a lot of books and articles that say people are really bad at figuring out what makes them happy. We think buying material goods will bring us some kind of long-lasting joy and assume that what sounds good to us today will sound equally good down the road. Neither is true.

What is happiness anyway? Years ago, I said to a friend, “I just want my kids to be happy.” And she wisely pointed out that I wouldn’t actually want my kids to spend their adult lives lying on a beach smoking weed all day long, no matter how blissed-out they might be. So it’s more complicated than “happiness”: I want them to have longterm goals and achieve them; I want them to have families and take good care of them.

Of course, I’m proof that even those things aren’t the complete answer: I have a loving spouse and kids and the luxury of getting to do what I enjoy, and yet I’ve still found myself this fall in the throes of an anxious depression.. Some of it is chemical. Some of it is that there are things going on in the world that are scary. And some of it, I think, is that I had lost the ability to appreciate the things that make life sweet. And that’s what I’m working hardest on getting back.

(A side note: It was challenging for me to write the rest of this. I grew up in the least sentimental family in the U.S. My parents wouldn’t have dreamed of crying at our graduations or weddings–I didn’t even know that people could cry from happiness until the year I watched It’s A Wonderful Life and had to figure out why my cheeks were wet at the end. Anyway, the point is, I feel embarrassed when I say sentimental things, even though I’m well aware I’m not my parents, because when my oldest son graduated from high school, I sobbed so hard I sounded like I was vomiting.)

But here goes (WARNING: SENTIMENTALITY AND POTENTIAL EMBARRASSMENT AHEAD):

What I’m clinging to these days as I drag myself up out of the hole (stop laughing, Johnny) is each and every instance of kindness, affection, love and gratitude between me and others. Yes, I feel like an exposed nerve these days, and that means the smallest touch can hurt, but it also means I’m exponentially more sensitive to the good stuff, too. As I stop focusing on tomorrow–because lately I’ve just been trying to get through one day at a time–I find myself much more aware of, and grateful for, every email from a friend, every encouraging comment on FB, every shared pastry at Starbucks, every stranger who smiles at me instead of shoving by, every good-natured exchange, every moment of solidarity, and every example of generosity, whether it’s directed at me or someone else.

There’s so much in the news that’s sad and scary but so much in my own life that’s decent and affirming. For a while, it felt like I couldn’t see that. I knew it intellectually: I just couldn’t feel it. But this is the strange gift of my own struggles: I’ve become very aware of the choices we all make at every moment of the day–how we can choose to be kind and generous or malicious and selfish–and I’m so grateful that the people I care about make the choice to be kind. I’m pretty sure that kindness, love, and generosity are all we’ve got to fall back on when everything else feels wrong or meaningless, and that every positive interaction makes life that much more livable for all of us. And the more I stop to notice the goodness all around me, the less hopeless I feel.

Happy Thanksgiving y’all.

  • Barbara Gold says:

    Ahh Claire, you gain and disburse wisdom and compassion. How excellent!

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

  • Anonymous says:

    Love that Claire!

  • Anonymous says:

    Oh Claire, Eau Claire. I so thoroughly get what you’re saying, I am fairly certain. Figuring things out isn’t always what is needed. Sometimes, we need to lie back and let the waves take us. Hard for me, being someone who loves to control things, in myself and around me. But, I’m getting used to it, these days, and I am actually enjoying the journey.

    Several years ago, I became unhinged, and my life unraveled in many ways. Today, the external trappings of my life aren’t what I would choose from a menu. But I feel I have more purpose now than I have in ages, and I’m more creative than I’ve been in a long while. The blessing of uncertaintly.

    Happy Thanksgiving!

  • celadman says:

    Oh Claire, Eau Claire. I so thoroughly get what you’re saying, I am fairly certain. Figuring things out isn’t always what is needed. Sometimes, we need to lie back and let the waves take us. Hard for me, being someone who loves to control things, in myself and around me. But, I’m getting used to it, these days, and I am actually enjoying the journey.

    Several years ago, I became unhinged, and my life unraveled in many ways. Today, the external trappings of my life aren’t what I would choose from a menu. But I feel I have more purpose now than I have in ages, and I’m more creative than I’ve been in a long while. The blessing of uncertaintly.

    Happy Thanksgiving!

  • celadman says:

    I meant, “uncertainty.” Duh.

  • […] think of a better way to start Thanksgiving weekend than taking a few minutes to read my friend Claire LaZebnik’s wise and inspiring essay on gratitude. This most American of holidays is often accompanied by stress — from hosting and being […]

  • Sabre says:

    As someone that suffers from depression, I can empathize with everything you said.

    But you’re also on to something. Mindfulness is a beautiful thing. Once you open your mind and your heart to it, you will see goodness everywhere and it will fill you up. I know this sounds hokey, but just try it. Go to your local coffee shop and watch people do little things for each other. Sometimes they are little teeny tiny barely noticeable things. You have to pay attention, be mindful.

    Sometimes when I’m down, I try to do the opposite of what I’m feeling. Sometimes I’m successful, sometimes, if I’m really low, I think I fail to sound sincere, even if I am. Once again, a coffee shop example, waiting to get my coffee, I might turn to the lady next to me and tell her that her hair is beautiful or that I love her coat. Or at the grocery store, I’ll tell the clerk thank you for being quick or being friendly or doing such an excellent job bagging my groceries. I try to be specific, instead of a blanket thank you, thrown over my shoulder as I walk away. They’re usually surprised, but I like to think that it sticks with them throughout the day and makes them smile more and feel more confident in their work.

    I hope I don’t sound like a new age crazed fan, I just wanted to pass on this little tidbit. I do hope that you round that corner and the darkness is lifted soon.

    • Claire says:

      I love what you wrote so much. You put into words what I was trying to say: that making an effort to have kind and positive interactions with the people around you makes your own life so much better. And theirs too. Thank you so much!

    • celadman says:

      Thank you, Sabre, for your beautiful and articulate reminder.

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