The Appeal of Unhappiness

Things I know about myself:

1. Not writing makes me unhappy.

Note that I didn’t say “Not writing well” or “Not having a finished draft” or “Not having published any writing lately.” When I don’t produce writing of some kind–just produce it–I feel much less contented with myself and with the world.

2. I don’t write as regularly or as much as I could.

The discerning reader will note that these two statements seem to contradict one another. The first indicates that I know, and have known since I was a preteen, that the act of putting down words, of crafting text, is an essential part of my feeling happy. It may not be enough by itself, but without it I know I’m not going to get to a place of contentment; it’s just never happened. But the second statement indicates that I have not acted on this knowledge, or at least I haven’t acted in the way logic would dictate.

Now, I could add all sorts of qualifications or justifications about why I haven’t written that much. I could point out that I have a marriage and a three-year-old son and two virtually grown sons and a job and dishes and laundry and the house and finances and life decisions and the poor play of the Miami Dolphins and the collapse of the Mideast peace process and people who believe Obama is a Muslim and the Tea Party and the success of the new Hawaii Five-O and various other conundrums that intercede between me and the page (screen) each and every day. I could claim that I haven’t the time or the energy, that writing is a self-indulgence that I cannot afford. But they would all boil down to this:

3. I am choosing to be unhappy.

Sound like a drastic conclusion? To me too. Yet the logic is unassailable. Writing by itself may not guarantee my happiness, but failing to do it definitely guarantees my unhappiness. Each morning when I roll over in bed for another 15 or 30 or 60 minutes of faux sleep, each evening when I nestle my rump further in the couch and burrow my eyes more deeply into the newest sitcom or cop drama rehash, each Saturday when I insist on seeing every last minute of the Northern Illinois versus South Dakota State volleyball match on ESPN2 (when I have no real interest in Northern Illinois or South Dakota State or volleyball or ESPN2), with each of these acts I consciously choose to distance myself from what I know would engage and stimulate and challenge and energize me.

I could, by the way, swap the word “running” in for the word “writing” and I would be able to say all of the same things. Both cases beg the question: Why? What possible motivation could I or anyone else have for choosing to be unhappy? It makes no sense. Let me add, for the record, that I detest those self-help gurus who insist that we “make our own reality” or “manifest our own destiny,” and that all we have to do is pray harder or tithe more regularly or light candles or, of course, purchase a particular book or set of tapes to achieve all that we desire. I believe that some choices are beyond our reach; some burdens are extremely difficult to overcome, and life and society (they aren’t the same thing, you know) can hand out opportunities in crushingly inequitable ways. None of these truths, however, explains the choices I have been making.

So here is my stab at an explanation: Unhappiness, when it’s chosen, carries a tremendous appeal. First and foremost, it’s reliable. Happiness can be precarious and difficult to maintain. But creating unhappiness is a wonderfully dependable and reassuring enterprise. Good days may come and go, but I can almost instantly guarantee myself a bad day anytime I like. Second, unhappiness is much easier. It requires no new skills or planning. I don’t have to learn anything new, because I mastered the ability to create it a long time ago. Third, it can be so immensely satisfying. Nothing beats a good wallow in a deep trough of self-pity for making the hours pass. Now I’m not talking about clinical depression. I’ve been to the bottom of that well, and it has a power and a depth all its own; I don’t regard depression as something I’ve chosen. But those things within my grasp that I have distanced myself from are a different story.

As I sit here, then, thinking about the details of a writing schedule or a running schedule, wringing my hands about how I will ever make the time, or how I can make it happen, I have arrived at truth-telling time. I can have the temerity, the outright gall to say that it is my right and my duty to pursue what fulfills and renews me, or I can keep doing what I’ve been doing. I can take the chance to be happy, or I can cling to unhappiness and all of its charms. Let that anchor drag me down, or let it go and kick and swim and rise.

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