Pain as Birthright, Tragedy as Destiny?

Throughout the last year I’ve been thinking a lot about inheritance. Not inheriting things, like grandfather clocks and money or blond hair and small feet. I’ve been thinking about all of the intangible things we inherit from our parents and grandparents. Like patterns of dysfunction, and depression. Like fears of motherhood or a need to keep up with the Joneses. What’s on my mind tonight is depression.

I watched “The Beaver” tonight and that’s the theme. My title might have reminded you of the graduation speech at the end, if you’ve seen it: “What if some of human experience is just something that you inherit like curly hair or blue eyes? What if pain is just in your DNA and tragedy is your birthright?” I’ve grown up with these questions in and around me.

I grew up with my father telling me that happiness is a choice. He didn’t mean like a choice between eating cereal or oatmeal for breakfast. He meant like the choice between cheating on your spouse with someone you’re attracted to at the office or choosing to be faithful to your spouse and reinvent your marriage. He meant that happiness is a choice that you decide upon by fighting for it. His words have stuck with me because he shared with me how hard he has been fighting for happiness all of his life. Because he told me how many times he almost lost and almost lost his life in the process.

Both of my sisters have inherited my father’s intense struggle for happiness. I’ve had my own battles. Depression for me has often taken the form of an intense, existential loneliness. A loneliness too painful for tears. A solitude so overwhelming it winds you. I understand how depression can be so consuming that it feels like a force of nature that can’t be contained or controlled. Like a hurricane that destroys or contaminates everything that was once beautiful. Whether you look around or in mirror all you see is rot, is decay. All you see stinks, reeks. Everything is dead or dying. Everything is distorted and lying. I’m talking about what you see, not what is. I’m talking about what you feel, not what is true.

Sometimes I think that happiness is just harder for intelligent people. Earlier today I read a  quote by Ernest Hemingway, “Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know.” Though I hate to believe he is right, I think it’s harder for people who think deeply to be easily happy. We want so much from life. We want beauty and meaning and connection. We want our lives to be full of purpose, adventure and romance. We want what the poets write about and the painters paint and the musicians play. But life isn’t always that epic or perfect. People too often disappoint or abandon us. We too easily disappoint ourselves.

I’ve yet to find wiser words on the subject than my dad’s: Happiness is a choice. I also don’t know if anything could be harder. Because it’s a choice that involves all these really difficult steps like forcing myself to get out of the house and connect with people. Like pursuing the dreams that scare me because I know that otherwise I’ll feel wasted. Like looking in the mirror and trying to come up with good things to say and think about yourself. … It means choosing to allow yourself to cleanse your eyes of the ashes that are clouding your vision. Most often, it means letting in the person “who is willing to pick you up and dust you off, kiss you, forgive you, put up with you, wait for you, carry you, love you.” It means allowing yourself to be vulnerable in weakness in order to find strength.

In the process of choosing happiness, I sometimes think that depression can be an odd sort of blessing. As if it turns the world upside down for three days so that once we see the world right-side up again we’ll better appreciate what we see. And this time, we won’t see it alone.

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