As my mom lay dying of cancer, I asked her what she thought the meaning of life was. At thirty-four years old I expected that by the end of your life you should have some sort of an epiphany. Some grand idea of what it all means, our greater purpose.
Her response disappointed me. “Oh honey, just be happy.” That’s it?
Now, looking back through the lens of being a parent, I can see just how profound those five little words were. Once I had my kids I realized that my greatest hope for my children is that they be happy. Sure, adversity makes us stronger and the trials of life are what make us grow, but at the root of it all not one of us wishes these on our children.
From the moment they are born we work to soothe their tears, keep them safe and protect them from heartache and pain. We band-aid their scrapes, cool their fevers and allay their fears. As we watch them head off to kindergarten we pray for their acceptance and kindness from others. This continues with each passing year, as they step through the doors of the unknown, into a new classroom, a new school, a new dance studio, a new locker room. We strive to help them in their quest for independence, to walk beside them, rather than carry them, along their path to adulthood. To guide but not coddle, support but not hover. To resist the urge to do everything for them, knowing this does more harm than good.
A part of us wants them to take the road less traveled, to forge their own path, to find their own way. But secretly, we hope that they are surrounded by an invisible bubble of protection, an army of guardian angels, a shatterproof glass around their hearts. That they would be invincible against bullies, that they would be the heartbreakers and not the heartbroken and the champions, not the runners-up. We hope that their successes outweigh their failures, that their courage will overcome their fears and that self belief will overcome self doubt.
The reality is that life will not be an endless string of happy moments that merge one into another. There will be trials and tribulations. There will be scrapes and broken bones, broken hearts and bruised egos. There will be times of fear and worry and doubt. It is in these moments that we are truly human, raw and vulnerable. But it is also in these moments that the true strength of our inner spirit shines forth. That the complex contrasting emotions that make up who we are become balanced.
There is no joy without sorrow, no peace without chaos, no bravery with fear.
For my seven-year-old daughter, the bravest moment in her life has not been getting on the huge upside down roller coaster at the amusement park, but rather, getting off. Having the courage to speak up when it came to a halt and the operator asked if everyone was ready to go again. To declare, in front of a crowd of adults, teenagers and kids, that she was not. To be the lone voice who listened to her inner self, acted on it and went against the grain. She was true to herself, and in that moment when most of us would have stayed on that roller coaster to avoid embarrassment, brave. Without fear her inner warrior would not have been unleashed. Without fear, she would not have been brave.
And so it goes, without sorrow we don’t learn the overwhelming power of joy. Without tumult we don’t feel the relief of peace. Without despair we don’t appreciate the comfort of hope. Without falling down we don’t experience the triumph of getting back up.
Being happy doesn’t always mean jumping up, spinning around and getting down with your happy dance. Happiness can be found in a quiet moment stolen in the early hours before the chaos of the day begins. It can be found in a small hand that slips into yours as you are rushing into the grocery store. It can be found at a child’s bedside whose fever has finally broken. It can be found amidst the tears and heartbreak and turmoil.
Maybe life really is about being happy. Maybe those three little words, just be happy, mean so much more.