That Other Shoe

3_24_11.JPGPictures of me in my current state of happiness make me nervous. I look at this photo with a sense of wonder at the fact that my smile looks genuine. The empty look that has shadowed my features for years appears to have faded. I am tempted to compare this photo to one of my "before" photos to see if I can tell the difference between these versions of my happy self. Will the scars of loss be somehow visible? Is the shadow of death really gone, or is it just lying in wait?

See that is what makes me uneasy. I have been this happy before. In my other life I loved and was loved; I looked into my future with optimism; I expected a full and happy life. Deep contentment is no longer something I take for granted, and to be honest, I have a hard time trusting that the future is full of good things. I find it much easier to brace myself for whatever pain lies ahead. Natural disasters will happen. Money will come and go. My children will face pain that I cannot take from them. People I love will die. All of these things I can see clearly in my mind’s eye, and I can feel my heart gates slamming shut. Batten down the hatches and close up shop. Somehow I see expected pain as more manageable then the unexpected kind, even though I know better. I am constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop.

When good news lights up my day I am sometimes unsure of how to respond to it. Embrace it? Revel in it? Celebrate it? Count all the chickens before they hatch? But what of the inevitable bad news that is sure to follow? If I don't overindulge in the wonder of life does that mean I can also diminish the intensity of the painful parts? Lately I have become aware of a new coping strategy...limiting my happiness intentionally because I am afraid of what might come next. Essentially I hold all things positive at arm’s length so that if the situation should suddenly turn ugly I won't be close enough to be wounded.

Yet happiness has a way of sneaking up on you; joy encourages you to let your guard down; and contentment seeps into your bones like a warm bath. Peace comes into your life unannounced and before you know it has managed to set up house. As time passes somewhat uneventfully, contentment has begun to feel a little familiar. Recognizing that this familiarity scares me has opened my eyes to the fact that I will only be as happy as I allow myself to be. I can choose to hold love and joy at arm’s distance, or I can choose to wrap my arms around them and breathe them in for as long as they are able to stay. Mitigating my happiness allowance won't save me from future pain, but my reticence to allow anyone to get too close will rob me of the moments of joy that make life worth living.

"Happiness is like a butterfly: the more you chase it, the more it will elude you, but if you turn your attention to other things, it will come and sit softly on your shoulder." ~Thoreau


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