I’ve been notably happier since we returned from our Japan trip. The arbitrary “start over” button of New Year’s Day was helpful. Visiting temples and Buddhism was soul cleansing. There is something beautiful about cold wooden floors, incense burning, monks chanting, and knowing that you are under the roof of a temple build hundreds and hundreds of years ago, amidst a civilization of people who have seen tragedy and mastered the art of rebuilding their lives. Their resilience is inspiring. But perhaps my good mood is because I’ve been reading about Jean-Paul Sartre’s concept of nothingness. The idea that there is nothing other than our conscious choices is, for me, liberating. The passage of time has also helped dissipate the pain that swelled inside of me in the days and weeks and months after Kenneth passed away. I still catch myself wondering if all of this is real, but it doesn’t hurt as much. Or maybe I’ve just gotten used to living with the pain and don’t notice it as much anymore.
My happiness has not been due to a decrease in stress. The stressors are always there. Recently my toddler stuffed my pants into the toilet. The dog shredded my screen door and chewed through the backyard gate again. I have three drop-offs in the mornings and three pick-ups in the afternoons. Dinner. Dishes. The usual components of the average rat race, amplified by being all alone to tackle it all.
I had a lot of those stressors even when my husband was alive. It’s easy to forget, kind of like how we forget the pain of childbirth. But it was most definitely there. I remember when my stepson moved out of our house. I remarked to my husband that life still felt stressful even though we had less to do. When my stepson lived with us, our days were filled with hectic meetings, appointments, extracurriculars, behavior issues, court dates, neverending custody drama with the baby’s mama, and so many tough situations that kept us in a perpetual state of chaos and stress. When he moved out, a lot of the pressure was relieved, but in time, somehow, the stress crept back into our lives. Stress always has a way of doing that. The circumstances really don’t matter.
I’ve noticed people who don’t have not much going on, yet still claim to be busy. Sometimes they even claim to be overwhelmed. You scratch your head wondering what could possibly be so stressful for someone who has so few obligations.
And there is your answer. We adjust (positively or negatively) to any situation we are in. The circumstances always feel impossible. We are either defeated by it, or we conquer it.
I refuse to feel like I’m trapped in a rat race. That’s not a way to live. I want to be happy. I choose happiness.
My secret these days has been to fight the resistance.
I’ve been trying not to resist.
I used to believe that accepting the status quo was lazy and weak. “Good enough” wasn’t something I embraced. When my husband passed away, I was plagued with horrible thoughts. I was angry that all of my life plans were destroyed. I hated the fact that I had just unwillingly become a single mother. I’m not sure if men understand the stigma surrounding “single mothers.” I was in line at Ralphs one evening with my kids. It was after work. I was dressed professionally. The kids were acting squirrely in the cart. They were hangry. The grocery clerk looked at me and asked if I was paying with food stamps. Nobody had ever asked me that before. I already felt self-conscious about being a single mother. I already felt self-conscious about toting kids around without a ring on my finger. I looked him square in the eye and told him I was concerned about what impression I gave him that I made him think was paying with food stamps. I couldn’t think of anyone doing that to a man. He diverted his eyes and mumbled an excuse.
But those were the days when I was particularly sensitive to it all. Now I’m so tired and run over by life that I don’t care as much. I had no choice in this situation. I did everything I was supposed to do in life and this is what the universe gave me. I can’t waste my life worrying about your potential interpretation of my existence.
In the words of the great Taylor Swift, “I don’t know if you know who you are until you lose who you are.”
Now I know who I am.
I’ve come to accept it. I’ve decided not to resist reality. It’s there. I can’t change it. Fighting it will only make me unhappy. I’m a woman whose husband died. I’m a single mother. An only parent. This isn’t the life I planned, but it’s my life.
I’ve also realized that acceptance and complacency are two different words.
Complacency: uncritical satisfaction.
Acceptance: a willingness to tolerate a difficult situation.
Resistance is what happens before acceptance. Complacency happens when you aren’t willing to turn resistance into action.
Acceptance allows me to take my resistance and transform it into productive action. I hate being a widow, but I don’t have a choice. As much as I think the universe has wronged me, there is no grievance department. Since my husband’s death was sudden and unexpected, I had zero time to process it before being thrust into survival mode. There were many unknowns that weighed on me. They still do. I had difficulty reconciling it all in my head. I still do.
But resisting never made it better. It didn’t alleviate the stress I felt. I found that clinging to the past caused more resistance, which in turn made me angrier and unhappy.
We feel sadness over not being able to control the ever-changing nature of life. Parents feel the bittersweet sting of babies that grow too fast. We agonize over new government leadership, new work schedules we didn’t ask for, new bosses, new laws, and in my case, having to live my life without my partner and raising our children without their father.
Accepting the reality allows you to strategize your next move. It frees your mind so you can spend your energy doing something about the change you want. It allows you to choose happiness. You’re able to continue living.
Too often we attach our happiness to other people and inanimate objects or things. Being a wife wasn’t the only source of happiness for me. I realize for many people their significant other is the center of their universe. I haven’t taken this route, partly out of stubborn feminism, and partly out of practicality. If my husband was my reason for breathing, I’d have nothing right now. I was born alone and will most likely die alone. I am responsible for me. This isn’t meant to be sad. It’s liberating. I get to make conscious choices throughout my journey of life. I can’t think of anything more empowering.
To fight my mental resistance, this is what I’ve done:
What do I care about? What would I fight for?
If you haven’t defined a purpose for yourself, you are like a ship with no sails floating aimlessly in a vast ocean. Having goals and focus is what can help you get up every morning and keep you excited about the next day. You have purpose, and you have reason for being. Through your ups and downs, you still have the stabilizing purpose in your life.
I would die if I sat around thinking about my misery. Trust me, there is plenty of misery to mull over. But it serves no purpose. Get it out of your system in short bursts, let out the steam, and then redirect your attention to others. Contributing to your community makes you feel like you’re a part of a bigger picture. Whenever you feel like you are drowning in your sorrows again, you remember that you are part of a larger community, you have value, and you are not alone.
I can’t get everything done. I’ve had plenty of meltdowns over this brutal fact. I had to take the day off because one of the kids were sick. By the time I got everyone dropped off, went to the doctor, dealt with the pharmacy, and took care of a couple other errands, it was almost time to pick the other kids up again. I envisioned my day off involving the sick kid napping and me hammering away on my to do list. Nope. It was grunt work. It was a rat race kind of a day.
I’ve had to accept that my to do list is a wish list. To survive, I have had to recalibrate my expectations and be able to identify what has to be done today, what can be done later, and what are long term goals. I can’t hold it against myself if I don’t accomplish what I wish I could do. It’s just me around here. I can’t do it all. That’s okay. I had to learn to let it go. I still struggle with it, but I’ve gotten much better, which means a lot less stressI recently renamed my to-do list my “Take Action List.” Although it may seem like a subtle difference, there is a big difference between definitively having to “do” something versus “take action,” which implies that any measurable progress or action would be sufficient. As long as I do something, I’ve taken action.
I regularly write in a journal of intentions, and quality time with my family and friends always makes the list. Connections with other human beings is what brings us true happiness. I’m a work-in-progress, but I try to make sure the kids and I eat dinner together every night, that I limit my time away from them after school, and that we continue making lots of memories together. It’s great to have friends at work, in the neighborhood, and friends of varying ages, interests, and places. The more we know each other’s stories, the more we humanize each other, the better we get along and the more we enjoy life.
You can’t avoid life, and inevitably there will be things that bother you. You have to learn how to deal with the unfavorable, otherwise you perpetuate the process of healing. However, this doesn’t mean you have to put up with triggers that you know will continuously bring you pain. For me, I’ve decided that Disneyland is my biggest trigger. We used to go frequently as a family. Now when I go, I’m surrounded by families. You might as well put a billboard in front of my face with glittering, flashing lights reminding me that I don’t have my husband. I find myself struggling to navigate crowds. Folding up a stroller while holding the baby is almost always a disaster. There are many rides we can’t go on because there’s just me and we need another adult. I’ve been to Disneyland about 6 times since my husband passed away and it just isn’t getting better. I’m at the point where I truly believe I’ll be happier not stepping inside of Disneyland for a while. At this point I feel like that’s okay.
Flexibility and calibration.
One day everything will be fine, and the next day you’ll feel like you’re sinking. To be happy, you must be flexible and become a master at re-calibrating your expectations and plans. This is the only way you can keep moving forward. Just like in nature, you either adapt or you become an evolutionary dead-end.
I’m not an expert at any of this, but I feel like sharing our experiences with each other helps us understand, learn, and grow from each other. I would never want to sugar-coat this horrible experience I’ve had with death. It’s not always okay. I’m not always happy. I get stressed out. But overall, I’m happy. I am actively choosing happiness and look forward to many more tomorrows. It’s not just one moment that defines us–it’s the totality of our experiences that make our lives.