A word about unhappiness.
First and foremost, of course, we’re not supposed to talk about it. I mean, you can if some unforeseen or protracted tragedy strikes and it is safe to verbalize your fears and your miseries because you don’t have to be ashamed for being unhappy.
As for unhappiness that doesn’t have an easy explanation or an easy fix, well, that’s the kind you can’t talk about. It’s easier to talk about sex, religion or politics than it is to talk about that.
And in fact, I’d rather talk about sex, religion and politics (though honestly, I’m pretty sick of the politics stuff).
Unhappiness gets shunted off to the side. It’s not a drive-time topic. Or a nine-to-five topic either. It’s not good to discuss over dinner. After dinner? Well, sure. But way later, way after everybody else has gone to sleep and you’re awake—awake and alone—with unhappiness.
Then you can talk to yourself about it.
Don’t expect much to come of the one-sided conversation.
Am I talking about my own unhappiness?
Ah, there’s the rub. I can’t talk about it on the grounds that it might incriminate me. Or maybe I’m talking about somebody else’s unhappiness and I don’t want to incriminate them, either. Doesn’t matter. I think we’ve all known it—unhappiness—from time to time, along with its companion misery, shame. So I find that it’s safest to be vague. It’s safest just to say “one” feels unhappiness, though we don’t typically talk in terms of “one this” and “one that.” Sounds so damn pretentious. But the French are brilliant for having a pronoun that is both inclusive and impersonal: On.
On n’est pas content de tout. See? It just works better. Nobody has to own up to a personal sense of unhappiness.
So what do you do with it if it happens that you do have a personal sense of unhappiness?
Well, you know. You go to the gym. Or yoga. The body really is smarter than the mind and isn’t the mind the source of anguish? Plus, just paying attention to something other than the inside of your thick skull is useful.
What else? Maybe you meditate. Go to a house of worship, though you may find it difficult to ‘worship’ with an unhappy heart. Praising is certainly difficult.
Oh, talking to friends. That’s one thing to do when one is unhappy. It is good to have friends, particularly if they don’t quote Abraham Lincoln, as I did to my daughter one time and lived to regret it: “You’re only as happy as you make up your mind to be.”
I got a slap-down for that one. And rightly. Didn’t Lincoln himself experiences les heures des douleurs from time to time?
Why did I say such an inane thing to my daughter? Why, I was trying to cheer her up. I was trying to get her over the spate of blues she’d fallen into.
Did it work? No, it did not. Other things worked. Like time going forward. Like me keeping my mouth shut or trying to. We go through sad times, I told her, perpetuating my capacity to say inane things. She looked at me like yeah, right. What do you know?
What do I know about unhappiness?
Mostly I know we’re not supposed to talk about it. Ideally we don’t even experience it. I’ve always wanted to be one of those people who say “If I were any happier I’d have to be twins.” I’ve actually said it from time to time. But I don’t get the tone right. I sound sarcastic, cynical. Twins, sure. Like the world needs more me.
I know that unhappiness is a great source of shame. Because if one is being unhappy, that also means one is being ungrateful. Robert Louis Stevenson wrote “The world is full of a number of things,/I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings” and he’s right, of course. We have so much to happy about and thankful for. To voice unhappiness is to court even more of it. You know, things can always get worse. And that’s the honest truth.
So if one is unhappy, one tends to sit with it late at night or in the wee hours when sleep will not keep you company and all you fear and all you dread and all that hurts you and all the hurt you’ve caused pins you under the bedclothes and you wonder how you will ever get out of bed again.
Though you will. Because—and isn’t this a blessing?—mostly there is no space in your schedule to be unhappy.