On Reflection and the Seemingly Unbearable Being of Happiness

Best-selling author, AJ Jacobs, once wrote that he was Jewish the same way Olive Garden is Italian. In other words, there might be hints of the traditions, but the ingredients for the old world depth and history were missing. Olive Garden is “spiritually” Italian. And, like AJ, I consider myself a spiritual Jew. And while I don’t go to services on the High Holidays, here I am at 3:00 in the morning on Yom Kippur, thinking about a year past … and a year ahead.

Yom Kippur is about atonement. It’s about making good with the people you’ve hurt. It’s about forgiveness. Reflection. I’m not one for “sins.” I think people make mistakes. We all make mistakes. Some are bigger than others. But if we take responsibility for these mistakes, we learn. We become better because of them. Mistakes become part of our strength instead of building blocks for judgment and weakness.

As I reflect on this past year, I keep thinking about the fact that I suck at being happy. When asked if I’m happy or the usual, “how you doing?” I’m usually quick to respond with something sarcastic. I’m good at sarcastic. Just living the dream one day at a time, man. More times than not I get a laugh and the conversation continues on its way. But at least I don’t have to talk about whether or not I’m happy.

I think I feel guilty when I feel happy. Like maybe I don’t really deserve it. If I tell anyone that things are going really well (as they are), I feel like I’m bragging. Showing off. I feel like a Facebook wall post. Like the Polyanna that I’ve been accused of being.

The problem is that downplaying happiness is a vicious cycle. If you downplay your happiness, you create less happiness for yourself. Less room for happiness. How are things? We’re asked. If we respond with energy and excitement (and authentic truth) about our worlds, we uplift. We uplift, not only ourselves, but also maybe the person who asked. When I answer, however, with sarcasm…I’m not uplifting anyone. Worse, I’m tearing myself down. I’d rather be around inspiring, positive, happy energy. Wouldn’t we all?

Maybe the real problem with this is that it all feels disingenuous. And I think that’s the biggest sin of all. As the cliché goes, life is short. It feels like there shouldn’t be time to waste on being anything other than genuine. If I’m not happy–fine. There’s no harm in that. But if I am? Feel that too. And celebrate it. We should all celebrate it. I love it when my friends tell me how well they’re doing. I love it when my friends succeed. I have to assume they’d all love to hear how well things are going for me … if, in fact, that’s the case. Yes?

So the truth is that I had a pretty good year. I need to learn to be more open in my relationships, more communicative. I need to learn take more risks with the time I have. But mostly, if Yom Kippur is about forgiveness and making good with the people we’ve hurt, I need to make good with myself. I need to honor myself. I need to do a better job of trusting my instincts and celebrating any success. We all appreciate a pat on the back. I need to learn how to give myself one … even at the risk of admitting that I’m happy.

I think society has a way of mocking what we think is unusual or strange. We laugh at the outliers and scoff at those who color too far outside the lines. It’s okay to go a little outside the lines, probably, but if someone gets too far away from the boundaries that we’ve artificially created, well, we can make life difficult for those people. We’ve developed technology that seems specifically designed to tear down. Social media reacts, hoots and hollers.

The funny thing is I respond magnetically to those who seem to write their own rules and draw their own lines. Those people seem happiest. The “non conformers.” I’ve always been drawn to them because they (mostly) appear authentic. True to themselves in a way that I admire.

And that’s what this night of Yom Kippur comes down to for me. I want that feeling of self truth. I want to feel like I’m living a life that feels whole and free. I want to feel like I’m honoring myself by honoring this gift of life. Because life is truly a gift. I want to feel present and engaged. I want to feel like I’m having a positive, inspiring impact, not only on my immediate circles, but also on others beyond. I want to be able to let the world know that I’m happy. And to have it be okay.

So, as the Yom Kippur night turns into morning, I wish nothing but the best to my friends and family. I offer my heartfelt apologies to those who I may have hurt this year. And I wish you all nothing, but happiness … and a place where you can genuinely share it.

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