True happiness is said to be found in people who feel equal to their peers. True happiness is seldom found in people who are rich. If you know many wealthy people, you probably know them to be suspicious and competitive, or perhaps even condescending and cruel. Same with overly attractive people. The wealthy and the beautiful have a lot more to lose than normal people do, which causes them more stress and fear. For most of us, equality and the ability to trust the motives of our equal peers makes true inner-happiness much more achievable.
As my 40th high school graduation approaches, Facebook is lighting up with posts from people I haven’t heard from in forty years. By their Facebook posts, many of them appear happier than me. Wealthier than me. More active than me. It makes me feel smaller, (or maybe I should say “fatter”) than I really am. But then I take a look at my own Facebook posts of the past several years, and I realize that even I myself, appear to be a lot happier, and wealthier, and more active than me also.
I guess it’s because we post what we want people to see, and we see what people want to post. So now I need to remind myself not to compare my real, daily life to others’ photographs of exotic vacations. When the cameras are put away, we’re all a lot more alike than we are different. We all have bills.
I know it is appropriate for all of us to post the pictures of our happy times, like our travels and bicycle trips, and our sailboats, and our parties. Those times aren’t fake. They really happened. I post those pics just like everyone else does. I post photos of my grandsons climbing on me, laughing. That’s what I want to show people so I can share the fact that my grandsons love me. I don’t show the pictures of me pulling my hair out an hour later when they wont’ stop fighting with each other. But know that it’s a part of my life that is also true.
For all of us, these great photographed moments of joy are spattered amid the vast playing field of real life. Normal life. The life that makes us all equal with each other. The struggles of loving our jobs on some days and hating them the next. I myself am known around my circles as a particularly happy person. I smile a lot. I inherited a sense of humor from my mother’s bloodline. I tend to find a lot of humor in daily life. It’s part of the reason I’ve survived real life for this long. But I don’t smile all the time. None of us smile all the time. When I drive in Seattle traffic I seem to show signs that I have Turret’s Syndrome. I love driving. I hate traffic. I think I’m pretty normal in that affliction. I’m not proud of it. And I won’t post pics of myself cursing another driver. But I still do it. Pretty much all of us deal with a myriad of things we aren’t proud enough of to take pictures of so we can share the entire story of who we really are.
People post photos of their bicycle trips in fancy-colored stretched Lycra, but they don’t show which complicated relationship they were ignoring, or avoiding, that day by going off on a bike trip by themselves. People show selfies at the Washington Monument but don’t post the credit card debt that they ran up for the trip. People show pictures taken by waitresses, of themselves and some friends laughing and toasting at a dinner table, but neglect to point to which friends or family should have been in rehab that night instead of at the bar drinking.
I guess my point is that it’s fun to show the party pics, and it’s fun to view them, but it is also wise to keep in mind that when we view each other’s happy posts, we are not seeing someone who is intrinsically happier than ourselves. The fun times and the hard times are as real for each of us as they are for each of the rest of us. We are all more alike than we are different. Don’t anyone be fooled by a stacked deck of joy-photos, into thinking your peers are all having better lives than you are.
As for me, I am generally happy. But I cringe whenever I discover that my peers think it’s because I’m luckier than they are. I never want my own life to make another person’s life seem small. Six years ago, when I began writing Disaster Island, a novel in which I disclose a lot of the truth about my past and the pasts of some of my peers, and about the lasting effects of hidden trauma on many otherwise normal-looking people, I also began sharing in conversation with peers, the true story of my upbringing. I was shocked when I discovered they were shocked. All those years of my trying to look happier than I was worked. It turns out I’d fooled a lot of people who, frankly, didn’t deserve to be lied to by my façade. People that I liked would hear my stories of abuse and say “I never, ever, would have expected to hear that happened to you.” Then, to my even greater surprise, many of them then went on, “Can I tell you something I’ve never told anyone before?” Then, as they shared their own stories of struggle and trauma, I learned that it is a very blessed thing to feel the great honor of being someone they can finally open up to.
My Facebook posts of smiles and boat trips, and my humorous personality, and my tendency to look for the joy in each day fools people into believing that I’m luckier and happier than they are. For that I apologize. In some cases, because they think I’m luckier than them, some good people don’t believe they have a chance at being happy also. But when I share the rest of the story, about the horrific abuse I took as a mob-bullied, suicidal child at Catholic School in the 1970s, or about the elder sibling/narcissist that tormented me for fifty years, people stop feeling separated from me, and begin to bond closer with me. They say things like, “Oh my gosh. My family had one of those in it too.” or “I was treated just like that when I was young too.” While they come to realize that they were not alone in their struggles, I come to the same realization that I wasn’t alone either. That moment of breaking down the wall, and of sharing a real trauma that was previously locked up and festering inside someone, is a moment of healing. The healing sends a wave of true happiness through me.
All the hell I went through with churches and family becomes the road that was worth traveling. Not ignoring the difficulties of my past is liberating. I wouldn’t want to relive Catholic school, or my own family, but I am proud to have survived them and I’m proud to share my life with those who need to know they are not isolated by their own past traumas.
Ultimately, we are all connected in this human experience. To think we need to compete with each other is thinking that perverts our connection and isolates us. Then it undermines our own happiness while it tries to undermine the happiness of the people we are actually connected to. The truth is, being vulnerable isn’t so bad. Being open begins the road to true, honest happiness.