In college, a good friend used to wear a purple T-shirt that said, “Choose to be Happy.” At that time, being of a certain fatalist bent, I interpreted the shirt to mean that, regardless of one’s circumstances, whether plagued by bad weather or torture, one could always choose one’s attitude. My friend, however, interpreted his shirt in a different manner–that a person has the power to make choices that can lead towards greater happiness, and should choose things that will make him or her happy, rather than favoring, say, money, security, or guilt.
At least, this is how I remember the conversation. (If this friend of mine is reading my blog, he can correct me in the comment section.)
A decade later, reflecting on that conversation, I suppose we were both right. But these days, I’m going with his version.
Back in college, I think I had a bit of a martyrdom complex. More about that in a future post. (Look for “On Martyrdom,” coming up!) Part of that was maybe fueled by personality, part by upbringing, part environment (fervently evangelical Christian college campus). Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to critique the idea of self-sacrifice. But there’s sometimes a tendency for some of us (women, especially, it seems) to choose self-sacrifice when it’s not being asked, when it’s not required, maybe it’s not even useful.
Too much needless self-sacrifice can make a person resentful, bitter. Glum, depressed. Not very nice to hang around with. Which basically defeats the point of being self-sacrificial.
This is why, in the last couple of years, I’ve decided to adopt my friend’s interpretation of his T-shirt. I’m making choices–some small, some large–that lead to my happiness. I don’t mean I’m going completely selfish. At least, I hope not. What I mean is, I’m allowing myself to do more of the things that make me happy instead of automatically assuming that I have to sacrifice my happiness for other people’s sakes.
Okay, here’s a big one. For a very long time I wanted to go to grad school. I love to learn, and am good at academics. But I didn’t think I should use so much of our family’s financial resources –including taking on debt–for myself. I thought I should resign myself to doing housework and laundry and taking care of my husband and kids. Because they’re more important than my dreams and desires, right? Of course.
But here’s the thing. I was a sullen housewife! I would fold laundry and feel angry that my life had been reduced to this domestic drudgery, while my husband went off daily to an interesting job that used his talents and considerable creativity while paying him money, and my kids went to school and ballet classes where they got rewarded for their accomplishments. As for me, no matter how hard I tried to change my attitude, I seemed incapable of being happy about washing dishes and mating socks. (Where on earth do those socks go, anyway?!)
Finally my husband, in desperation after yet another banal argument about housekeeping roles, insisted that I think harder about my goals and dreams, and work on pursuing them. “I don’t care if you do the laundry, just be happy!”
What a guy, huh.
So now I’m studying fiction in grad school, and I’m mostly happy. These days, I feel good even when folding laundry because I’m thinking about stories to write instead of, “Woe is me! how sacrificial I am.”
Everyone in the house benefits because when Mama’s happy, everybody’s happy. And as it turns out, the husband and kids are perfectly capable of matching their own socks.