This week my daughter and I were discussing a piece of English homework. She had been tasked with writing an essay comparing the use of power in two poems. As a sucker for poetry I asked her which poems she had chosen and said that I would read them while she was at school so that we could discuss them together afterwards. The power that we have to create a sense of happiness within us is sometimes overlooked but we can be reminded of it in the most unexpected of ways.
Finding myself with a spare hour or so I decide to finish watching the excellent documentary “Fear Of 13” on Netflix, which tells the story of Nick Yarris, a man wrongly convicted of a brutal murder who spent twenty years of his life on death row. Yarris was only released at the point at which he had given up his protestations of innocence and asked to be executed. At the end of his story, after all he has endured, he faces another test of his ability to conjour happiness from nothing but his own imagination.
Our obsession with needing to control all that goes on around us in order to feel a sense of balance and peace within is, ironically, the most fundamental reason that we can’t manage it. Couples flounder in their relationships most successfully when their focus is on what the other person thinks and feels to the absolute ignorance of what they themselves are experiencing. So intent are we on making sure everyone else is alright we take our hand from the rudder of the boat and drift aimlessly until the realisation that we are not where we wanted to be becomes stark and uncomfortable.
This week I ask a client struggling in a challenging place what makes her feel happy. She answers without missing a beat. “I am happy when everyone else is happy”. If you tell yourself that happiness depends on everyone else you’d better hope that everyone else is thinking the same way.
When we look around it is easy to let happiness drain from us. There is always much which will be disappointing, frustrating, upsetting. We will see unfairness, oppression, injustice. It is not a chance but an inevitability that others will fail to react in the way that we would like them to. Sometimes we will feel as if we are not there at all so overlooked are we in searching for simple validation. All the time that we look outwards for reassurance and comfort we risk the dilution of happiness, but inside us we are able to create the reality we most want. Imagine taking that out into the world each day rather than resigning ourselves to whatever the world throws at us.
One of the poems my daughter chose was “The Emigree” by Carol Rumens. The narrative follows a child’s view of her war torn country and how her memory of it before the conflict cannot be violated because it is an image she holds within her. Taken literally or metaphorically, seeing the old country as a manifestation of the past, the power is in a refusal to accept that a physical reality is stronger than an emotional construct. So it is with happiness. If we decide to be happy we can be and, provided we are wedded to that intention, no amount of darkness outside of us can extinguish the determination to experience the light. Confirmation bias dictates that we look for the evidence to support our view of ourselves and the world. So if I believe I am happy and worthwhile I will work unconsciously hard to find the evidence which supports my view. The reverse is true as well.
When Yarris receives the call from his lawyer to tell him that his conviction will be overturned he is moved from death row to the psychiatric wing of the prison. The governor is worried that he will feel such a rage at the injustice of having spent half his life behind bars that he might take violent revenge on the guards. They remove all of his books, all of his art, all of the things he has used to keep himself afloat for all the years of incarceration. In his new cell with just a bed and a plastic pillow he sits in meditation and closes his eyes. He imagines the life he will have when he is released. He sees himself getting married, having a child and being a wonderful father. He says to himself “If you are going to take everything away from me, I will give myself everything.” Amen to that.