My Turn to Embrace Unhappiness
I frequently urge students in my happiness and meditation classes to build their happiness brain and heart muscles now, not only to enjoy the moment but also to be better prepared for the inevitable bad times. It’s part of life, I say aloud. Meanwhile, internally, I am likely engaged in a mini-argument that goes something like this: “You know, this means you, too.” “No, no, not me! “Yes, you too, you know it’s true.” “Oh, okay, but not for a long time, and nothing really bad, right?”
Yesterday, the “you, too” side won the argument. Bad times have arrived.
All week, I had lived with low-grade anxiety, worried that I might be in trouble. The fear started brewing when I called the optometrist on Monday morning to report some troubling eye symptoms, and the receptionist said you need to come in right away. Not a good sign. Then, they made sure I got an immediate appointment with one of only four retina specialists in the entire state of Vermont. More foreboding. Still, I had hopes for nothing more than a minor inconvenience until the moment Doctor Kim’s tone of voice suddenly changed. As he directed urgent comments to his assistant — in medical shorthand I couldn’t understand — I grew uneasy. “What does that mean?” I asked. “I’ll explain it all,” the doctor said. “First we need pictures.”
Because other unfortunates were ahead of me in line for the photos, that meant an agonizing hour in the waiting room where, surrealistically, the television was blaring a Donald Trump speech. Finally, it was my turn with the camera specialist, who asked me what I do for a living. I stammered, ” I’m a happiness teacher,” thinking, “please, please don’t talk to me about happiness because now all I am is a terrified person.” Fortunately, there were no more questions; he instead reminisced about a recent trip to Costa Rica.
Ironically, when I left the dark camera room for the sunlit hall on my way back to the examination room, everything was startlingly rose-colored. Seriously — the dye that had been injected in my hand in order to get better eye pictures temporarily turned my vision deep pink. It was brief, beautiful, and definitely not metaphorical.
Finally, the diagnosis: retinal neurovascularization in my left eye, bleeding that has already caused permanent damage to my eyesight and would blind me completely in that eye — probably within months, the doctor said — if left untreated. Fortunately, there is a treatment, a drug that will be injected right into my eye. The doctor assures me, this will hurt. I need to have the treatment a minimum of three times, probably six times, maybe more, starting right away. Since it was Friday afternoon, and these injections are a two-day affair, the first treatment is scheduled for Monday afternoon.
But I’m not writing this because I feel sorry for myself. I don’t, actually. This is the kind of suffering that visits each of us multiple times throughout our lives. Perhaps literally millions of people are suffering much worse physical and emotional pain than I am at this very minute. Bad times take many different forms. Who knew it would be vitreous hemorrhage for me? I never even heard of vitreous hemorrhage before Friday.
The reason I’m writing today is to reflect on just how a happiness professional should handle this situation. I believe the answer lies in embracing unhappiness.
I managed to beat back the tears until I left the doctor’s office. I don’t know why. Surely the doctor and his staff see many people cry, and I definitely wanted to cry. My left eye is irreversibly damaged. I almost lost my vision completely in that eye. That is worth grieving over. That is worth many tears.
I know I’ll be done crying soon. From both personal experience and research on happiness and resiliency, I know I’ll bounce back and be my cheery self again, presumably with a keener appreciation of my eyesight. For now, though, it’s important to face this reality, not sugar coat it. There’s a lot to be grateful for in this situation, and I’ll get there. However, a full and rich life demands feeling the pain, too. Already, I’ve had loved ones tell me to be positive and to focus on the gratitude — and, dear hearts, if you’re reading this, I love you and thank you for your kindness — but that is not what I need right now.
Should I be optimistic? I guess I am, in that I didn’t think twice about whether to have the treatments or not. Definitely, any optimism I have is grounded in reality: this will not be fun. It might not even work. It might happen in the other eye. But, together with my skilled doctor, I’ll do my best to work toward a positive outcome.
I’ve been thinking about the words of Admiral James Stockdale, the highest ranking naval officer to be held prisoner during the Vietnam War. He observed that the POWs most likely to survive that experience were those with reality-based optimism. Neither the prisoners who thought they would be released almost immediately nor the POWs who believed they would never be released survived as well.
Stockdale said, “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end – which you cannot afford to lose – with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they may be.” So be it. Faith, yes. And, tell me the truth.
I’ve also been thinking about a cautionary note in the book Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth by father and son positive psychology team Ed Diener and Robert Biswas-Diener. Although happier people are in general less likely to have ill health, the Dieners warned, when it comes to surviving physical maladies, happier people can fare worse. Because their glasses are too rosy, perhaps? Or their optimism isn’t reality based?
So I don’t want that “happy person” who is disconnected from her own health reality. That means not only doing what I need to do, but also feeling what I need to feel.
With the support of a few loved ones, I’m giving myself some hibernation time — no church choir for me this weekend. I want to grieve, for the human condition, bodies that break, and my lost eyesight. I’m also aware of my anger directed at the optometrist who didn’t find any symptoms back in March, at myself for not going to see a retinal specialist earlier, and at the world in general because no one ever told me that such a thing might happen to those of us near-sighted folks with large eyeballs. I will forgive the optometrist. I will forgive myself. Not yet, though.
Here’s another aspect of my teaching that now seems a little too close to home: I always read Helen Keller’s essay “Three Days to See” to my meditation classes because it does such a good job of illustrating the value of mindfulness. Keller wrote compellingly of all the amazing wonders of the world we would see so much better if we were faced with the loss of our eyesight.
Hopefully, I am not facing the loss of my eyesight. Still, on the ride home from the doctor, while my loving husband drove, I reflected on Helen Keller’s words and tried to savor the picture postcard Vermont summer mountains and sunny blue skies.
I couldn’t do it. I just needed to be sad.
It’s dark, rainy and cold today. Later this week, sunny skies and seasonable temperatures are expected to return. Perhaps my own good cheer will re-emerge in a few days as well. Maybe not. Either way is okay.