Years ago, when I was seeking a divorce, my lawyer asked me one day in the middle of my frustration and fear regarding custody of my boys if I wanted to be right or I wanted to be free.
It was one of the best questions anyone had ever asked me, and I didn’t have to think about my answer.
“Free,” I said. In that moment, I gave up on my rather naïve ideas about justice and cooperation in the process of divorce. I stopped worrying about being right. I understood no one but me was interested in the best situation for the kids. I fought for as much freedom as I could get, not for myself, but for them.
The memory came vividly back to me when I read this article by Arthur Brooks from Big Think. The author describes an interaction with a successful but unhappy financier, who remarks she would rather be special than happy. Her definition of special has to do with professional success. Ordinary people, she says, can be happy. She wants to be more special than that.
Photo by Andrew Loke on Unsplash
I thought about that choice, and I wonder, are special or happy the only two choices? Is there some rule stating one can’t be special and happy?
Why do we believe we have to give up something to be happy?
Can ordinary people be happy but extraordinary people can’t?
Are ordinary people happy?
Is ordinariness shameful? Is happiness a goal only for those who can’t be special in any way, a kind of booby prize?
I don’t believe happiness has anything to do with being ordinary, extraordinary (as defined by whom?) or somewhere in between. It’s a lot more complicated than that. I wonder if we’re losing our ability to distinguish between temporarily satisfying our addictions, expectations, and compulsions while numbing our pain and fear, and feeling true, enduring happiness.
Happiness, after all, is a state of being rather than a state of doing. To some degree we must allow it – give it time, space, and a safe place to exist. It’s not something to pursue or try to create. It’s already within us, somewhere.
(This creation of space, by the way, is a pillar of minimalism. If everything is important, nothing is. One discards until what’s truly important is revealed.)
I jotted down this statement: I’d rather be dutiful, loyal, responsible, a good parent/partner/daughter/sister, rich, powerful, in control, right or successful, than happy. I didn’t think hard about it. I have chosen everything on that list at one time or another in my life. I haven’t chosen happiness or seen it as a choice, and I’ve been unconscious of my belief that happiness can’t coexist with my standards of integrity.
Happiness just doesn’t seem like a worthy goal to me. It’s not culturally sanctioned. Ambition, power, wealth – those are worthy goals. Those are things that matter. Obviously (so obvious it goes without saying directly), those are the roads to happiness. One can be happy, but it must be earned, and happiness is not the goal, just a nice bonus. The real goal is productivity. The shadow side of productivity is consumption.
But productivity is a moving goalpost, and it doesn’t make us happy.
It occurs to me we talk about happiness or unhappiness as a blanket state of being, but it’s really more like Swiss cheese. I feel chronically unhappy about some aspects of my life, and chronically angry about others. Yet every day I also feel periods of happiness when I allow itand take the time to be present in the moment.
When I allow myself to play in the garden, I feel happy.
When I allow myself to settle down with a good book, I feel happy.
When I allow myself to be creative, I feel happy.
When I allow myself to be who I am, I feel happy.
Gardening, reading, being creative, and living authentically take time, intention, discipline, and energy. Discipline. Can you believe it? It takes discipline to remember I’m not a human doing, but a human being. My intrinsic worth as a being isn’t tied to productivity or consumption. The treadmill of productivity is easy. Stepping off and relaxing takes discipline. And that’s not only me.
The nature of addiction (physical and mental dependence) in any form is that it gradually pushes everything else out of our lives. Our addiction consumes our time, energy and money. Anything not in service to the addiction is discarded, including relationships, health, free time, quiet time, and creativity. Our addiction becomes our primary relationship and those around us quickly learn we’re not available for anyone or anything else.
Workaholism and perfectionism are addictions, along with productivity, toxic positivity, substance abuse, eating disorders, over-exercising, and sex addictions.
Happiness is power. That which takes us away from our happiness is disempowering.
Why do we live in, perpetuate, and enable a culture that relentlessly and brutally disconnects us from happiness?
That’s easy. Our individual happiness does not benefit capitalism, because happiness can’t be bought or sold. Capitalism benefits from an unhappy population brainwashed into believing productivity and consumption will make us happy. Who benefits from violence, division, hatred, manipulating our fear, restriction of choice, and disconnecting us from the simple pleasure of happiness?
Those currently in power and determined to stay that way, both governmental and corporate.
Who allows and enables that power-over stranglehold?
If I want peace in my environment, I need to remove everything obscuring it.
If I want peace in my relationships, I need to clear away whatever obstructs it.
If I want internal peace, I need to peel away whatever destroys it.
It’s such a simple idea, and so monumentally difficult to put into action.
How do we figure out what’s strangling our peace?
Likely, at least some of what’s killing our peace are habits of action and thought we’re deeply invested in or frankly addicted to. Things we don’t want to give up or feel unable to give up. Sometimes we’re so attached to certain habits or possessions we feel life is not possible if we can’t have them or engage with them. Our survival depends on them, and peace takes a back seat to survival.
Except maybe it doesn’t. Maybe, in the long run, we can’t survive without a certain amount of peace.
If we undertake the work of identifying what’s between us and peace, we’re going to find feelings. Lots of feelings. Feelings we don’t want to feel. Feelings we don’t know what to do with. Feelings we’re afraid to express. Feelings we’re ashamed of. Feelings that are tearing us apart.
Until and unless we find appropriate, effective ways of managing and processing our feelings, we’ll never uncover the peace buried beneath them.
What if there’s nothing to make and nothing to buy? What if there’s no app to use or post to make?
What if what we have to do is discard everything concealing the peace, love, health, time, self, or authentic life we want?
We can’t discard our feelings, but we can learn how to manage and integrate them. We can discard toxic pieces of identity. We can discard thoughts, beliefs, patterns of behavior, and addictions. We can discard digital and real-life clutter. We can discard time-wasting and destructive habits. We can discard toxic relationships and toxic relationship dynamics.
It’s easier to buy something. It’s easier to get on Facebook or a dating app. It’s easier to have a drink, or turn on Netflix, or get high, or get numb. It’s easier to eat a box of donuts.
Easier, but all those choices layer a further crust of chaos over the magnificent life we long for.
When we teach Parent and Child swim classes, most of what we teach is for the parents. Holds, encouragement, how to demonstrate skills, the importance of trust, safety, and initiating lots of play are among the highlights. One of the things we talk about is the “Terrible Toos.” Too far. Too many repetitions. Too tired. Too scared. Too hot or cold. Too hungry. Too thirsty. Too much sun. All of these impact a child’s ability to learn.
I begin lessons with a lesson plan, but I’ve worked with children all my life, and I know one never knows how a session will go. Every time is different. One day they’ve napped, and another day they haven’t. One day they have a tooth coming in, or they’ve just had a doctor’s appointment, or they’ve been to school. Sometimes they’re getting sick. Sometimes they’ve just gotten a new puppy.
Sometimes they’re up for learning, and sometimes they’re not. When they’re not, I need to set aside my agenda and work with where the child is. It’s surprising, how many skills we can practice during 30 minutes of “play!”
Recently I read this article about figuring out what is enough from Becoming Minimalist, and it made me think about the “Terrible Toos.” We know so much about more, and so little about too much and enough.
Enough. As much or as many as required for satisfaction.
There’s a problematic definition! Satisfaction is entirely subjective. We are taught from babyhood to consume, to want, to desire more. Our culture is structured around appeals to our longing for belonging, connection, and more than we have. More clothes. More food. More friends. More tech. More money.
I wonder how many people know what enduring satisfaction feels like.
Enough is a boundary. It’s a destination. It’s power.
Unlimited More is a black hole.
Enough is reality.
Unlimited More is addiction, or perfectionism, or pleasing. It never ends. It never stops. It’s never satisfied. It’s based on the fantasy that if only we had more _______, our lives would be better. If we were only more ________, we would be loved.
Enough is a choice to say yes or no. No, I don’t need that. No, I don’t want that. No, I have enough.
Unlimited More is not a choice. It’s yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes, I need more.
Fear. It’s so mundane. It’s so extremely powerful. It’s such an extraordinary tool for manipulation.
Rhone asserts faith is frequently more powerful than facts. I might have doubted this once, but after the last four and a half years I agree. We continue to play out the conflict between those who are fact- and science-based and those who are not, especially in social media, steadily becoming more divided and disconnected as each side polarizes further.
We are evolved to experience feelings, and fear in particular is an important evolutionary advantage.
I think of faith as a spiritual connection, and we’re evolved, as social, conscious beings, to connect. Connection is a primary human need.
It seems to me a balance of faith, fear, and facts is optimal for navigating through life.
Where does the balance go wrong?
It goes wrong when we deify a misinformed or dishonest person. When we misplace our faith, in other words. We accept someone’s version of reality, their ideology, their beliefs, without question. Sometimes we do it because we believe they have power we need. Sometimes we do it out of fear. Sometimes we do it because we have no self-confidence; we feel powerless to think and learn for ourselves. Sometimes we do it out of misguided compassion.
The balance goes wrong if we fear our fear and are unable to manage it. Fear becomes so consuming we’ll do anything for relief, including refuse to deal with facts that scare us.
So we develop faith in something – anything – that makes us feel better and relieves our fear.
Perhaps our problem is not literacy, or education, or access to resource, or discerning fact from fantasy, but simply our inability to cope with fear.
During my lifetime, I’ve watched our culture become increasingly inauthentic as we consumers demand more and better ways to live in a fantasy world. Role playing games, superhero movies, digital image manipulation, porn, virtual reality tech and special effects allow us to sink into illusion.
Over Memorial Day weekend I did an experiment. I installed a free hidden objects game on my laptop to see what it was like.
It was a big file and took several minutes to download. When I opened it, it covered my whole screen, corner to corner. I couldn’t see my task bar or clock. There was no obvious way to exit; I used the Escape button. The graphics were colorful, animated, attractive, and interesting. A pop-up suggested I use headphones to fully experience the sound. Constant pop-ups urged me to join social media communities playing the game. Constant pop-ups advertised other games (paid) I could play, or pressured me to purchase tools and tokens that would make me a better, faster, more successful player in the “free” game I downloaded.
Free, yes. Want to compete successfully? Want to win? Now you have to buy things!
By the way, if you play every day you get extra points!
The game was cluttered. It provided constant validation and reinforcement. The characters were good-looking, well-dressed and Caucasian. Beautiful food and drink, jewels, and true love were heavily emphasized. One collects points and objects and advances in levels. You don’t have to search for what you need, though, if you’re feeling fatigued. You can simply buy what you need.
The puzzles were timed, of course, which made them a lot less fun for me. Although one plays alone, the competitive aspects were continually reinforced.
The reviews of the game say things like “Beautiful!” and “Addictive!”
Because, you know, addiction is a good thing.
I played for a couple of hours. During those hours I didn’t invest in health, happiness, resource , resilience, or my own power. I wasn’t present in the real world.
I also didn’t think about climate change, politics, my job, or getting the car into the shop for brake work.
My feelings were numbed. I wasn’t afraid, but I wasn’t anything else, either.
When I exited the software, I felt as though I’d eaten a bag of jelly beans. I uninstalled the game Tuesday morning.
Have we become a culture that favors illusion over real life? Do we prefer fantasy, as long as it makes us feel “good,” entertains us, or distracts us? Do we prefer being led and manipulated to thinking for ourselves and forging our own paths?
I feel sad and scared after this experiment. If we don’t choose to live in the real world and deal with facts, we have no hope of solving the challenges and problems facing us, from maintaining our cars to managing climate change.
Fear helps us survive. The feeling tells us we must take action. If we refuse to feel fear, or respond to it, we will be deselected.
Facts can be inconvenient and unpleasant, but refusing to deal with them is like refusing to deal with fear. They don’t disappear if we deny them. Nothing can be solved or learned if we refuse to acknowledge facts.
Reality endures. Truth and clarity are powerful. Illusion lies. It might be seductive for a time. Illusion might pretend to be power. In the end, however, it’s empty. It only takes and weakens. It enslaves us, confuses us, and steals our power. It increases our fear while pretending to relieve it.
Faith is a choice about where we put our trust and confidence.
I’ve struggled all my life with confusion about the difference between enabling and love. Most of us think of enabling in the context of addiction, and we’re familiar with the idea that helping an addict avoid the consequences of their addiction is not, in the long run, useful.
It’s a pretty clear idea in theory. In practice, however, it’s a whole different story.
Enabling, denying, or allowing destructive patterns of behavior to continue extends far beyond the issue of addiction. Compassionate, loving people who sincerely want to help and support others wind up enabling all kinds of toxic behavior with the best intentions in the world, or completely unconsciously.
That’s the problem. Enabling can look and feel so much like love. Choosing not to enable can look and feel so much like rejection, selfishness, or even hate.
I’ve spent years of my life enabling toxic behavior in the name of love, duty, and loyalty. I’ve truly believed with enough modeling and patience I could heal the destructive behavior of others. For most of my life I’ve lived with the delusional belief my unconditional love is enough to keep my loved ones happy and healthy.
I only wish I had that much power.
Choosing not to enable or deny is heartbreaking. It’s a choice I’ve made, and I feel daily anguish over it, even as I know in my heart I’m doing the right thing for myself and those I love.
Those of us who are intimately familiar with patterns of addiction and toxic behavior know the unrelenting pressure from well-meaning but clueless onlookers to excuse and/or rescue loved ones from the consequences of their choices.
People who expect or demand to be enabled do everything they can to keep the dynamic alive. Remember those who punish us for our boundaries are the ones who gain the most from their absence. One of the important patterns that helps identify relationships in which enabling is taking place is when we make any kind of excuse for a pattern of destructive behavior. So-and-so is not loved. Nobody has ever understood them (but us). They’ve had various kinds of trauma. The world is against them. Nothing ever works out for them. They’re disenfranchised and alienated. They’re suffering and nobody cares. They have no one to turn to. They can’t afford to get help.
Solving or covering up someone else’s problems is very different from empowering them. We empower when we teach skills, share resources or give someone tools that support them in solving their own challenges. The difficulty is someone stuck in a chronic pattern of destructive behavior doesn’t always want this kind of power. Resources, tools and skills are of no use if we aren’t prepared to take responsibility for our troubles, and it’s so much easier and more comfortable to deny or blame someone or something else for our destructive patterns and their consequences.
Unfortunately, the emotional dynamics of enabling are hard to fully understand until and unless we’ve experienced them for ourselves. I want to protect loved ones from going through the pain and damage that occurs to relationships when toxic behavior is present. I never want them to feel as torn apart as I have. I want them to use the resources and tools I can offer and learn from my mistakes.
Again, I only wish I had that much power.
As a lifelong caregiver, I’ve abdicated rescuing myself in favor of rescuing others. This is the shadow side of caregiving. Enabling others, entering into an unspoken agreement to work harder on their problems and lives than they do, is a dead end that keeps us nicely distracted from coming to terms with our own challenges. Even worse are relationships based on an unwritten agreement to mutually enable one another’s dysfunction.
Another part of why we choose to enable can be to help soothe our own anxiety. We don’t want to be in conflict with those we love. We don’t want to lose relationships dear to us. We don’t want to deal with a lot of trauma and drama. It’s easier and quicker just to write another check to help out one more time because our family member or friend can’t stay employed due to their substance abuse. It’s easier to manage their lives ourselves than watch them muddle along without clean socks and food in the fridge or listen to their constant complaining.
You’re an enabler if you’re asking why they keep doing it. Ask instead why you keep allowing it. As long as you allow it, they’ll probably do it. They’ve got no motivation to do anything else.
Enabling is painful, stressful, and will burn us out. It might take a long time, but eventually it will eat us up and drain us dry. It may feel like love, or duty, or loyalty, but it isn’t. It’s destructive for everyone involved.
For me, one of the most insidious aspects of enabling is keeping secrets. I’m not talking about protecting personal privacy or keeping confidences. I mean pretending not to notice that Brent is high again on the job, or looking the other way when a loved one drives home drunk from the bar. The biggest reasons I’ve kept secrets are shame (I must be a terrible person if someone I’m closely connected to is in such trouble), loyalty, and my effort to protect others.
You’d think I’d learn.
Keeping secrets implies tolerance, and it allows destructive patterns to continue and worsen. Every single time we pretend not to see, cover up or make excuses, we’re making the inevitable crash worse for everyone involved. Another reason I’ve kept secrets is for fear of no one believing me, or being told I’m overreacting (which masks their own denial). It’s easier to just avoid the whole issue and say nothing. Then everyone is more comfortable. Everyone except me. All that unsaid feeling and horror becomes a stone I carry in my heart, mute, but agonizing.
As counterintuitive and inadequate as it seems, the best thing we can do for loved ones struggling with toxic patterns of behavior, including addiction, is care for ourselves and stay firmly rooted in our own lives. If our offers of skills, tools and/or resources are rejected, we have no further power in the lives of others. We can only meet our own needs and solve our own problems, even if it means we must walk away from relationships in order to save ourselves.
Not everyone will understand or support us in refusing to enable, particularly the person we’ve been enabling. However, making the choice to live another day in our own lives means we can continue to be available to appropriately love and support someone when they’re ready for it, and at the very least provides a model of empowerment and self-responsibility.
Enabling is not love. It may seem like the easiest choice, but love requires much more than easy choices.