A few short weeks after singing the praises of the ‘happiness effect’ (see “The Third Question” on this blog) I find myself in a delicate position: I’m sitting in the mud, counting my losses. Some may argue that resting one’s behind in the slush is better than brewing it but from where I stand (or not) –sad and lonely- it makes little difference. Too many loved ones have passed on, my health has been compromised by a freak accident, and my mom’s rapid decline is forcing me to contemplate life as an orphan. My butt’s in the muck and it does not feel good. As my wet hands run over my tear streaked face I have no choice but to ask question number 4: does falling in the quicksand signal the end of the happiness ripple?
“The Frog and Toad Treasury” written and illustrated by Arnold Lobel is one of my children’s all time favorite collection of stories. Frog and Toad are a charming pair of friendly croakers. Toad is predictable and loving; he likes to sleep and worry. Frog is adventurous and caring; he enjoys a good splash in the pond and taking chances. In “A Lost Button”, Toad, while taking a stroll with his friend, notices that his favorite jacket is missing a button. Frog looks high and low for it. He finds many buttons in the woods but none of them are Toad’s. A disappointed and angry Toad shoves them all in his pocket and goes home. There on the floor lies the never wandering object of his upset. Feeling sorry for making his friend search the woods, Toad sews his collection of buttons on his jacket and offers it to Frog the next day. And the story reaches its merry conclusion: “Frog thought it was beautiful. He put it on and jumped for joy. None of the buttons fell off. Toad had sewed them on very well.”
Let’s not jump to conclusions: I haven’t been turned into a sobbing amphibian nor have I been cursed into a raging one. Toad and Frog’s case of the missing button, or rather, their parable of the multi buttoned coat, is leading me to the answer I’m seeking.
When we feel happy the world is an exciting place where walking in the woods is synonymous with fun and adventure. But sooner or later the unthinkable crosses ours minds and we worry. When it crosses our paths, we grieve. Our attention zeroes in on the missing piece: the litany of pain is loud and confusing. We want to reconnect with the joy that’s deserted us. As it keeps slipping through our fingers, the world starts shaking with the force of the quake. Life becomes a blur of anger, emptiness, and grief.
“There, on the floor, Toad saw his white, four-holed, big round, thick button”: happiness does not wander; like a button, it’s waiting to be picked up again and put to loving use. Joy wants to survive even in sorrow. The buttons of our lives are all different in color and impact and they’re not sorted in neat and convenient piles. They’re a string of unexpected and unchecked emotions asking to be found and acknowledged. When we take ownership of our feelings and allow them unfold as they may we collect the evidence to our resilience: we sew the buttons on our life travelers’ coats – very well. Ripples, interrupted? Yes. Happiness, terminated? No. Because true joy does not reside in the absence of pain or even in crawling out of the quicksand. It stems from our willingness to make use of all our buttons, familiar or new, and from our readiness to wear the beautiful jacket of our experiences with wonder. Whether we’re sitting in the mud or swimming in the pond.
2010 © Maryse G. Copans