Tuesday, October 1, 2013
On Being Happy in Hawaii
I sat in Grace's kitchen chatting with her, sitting in old chairs, listening to her point out the treasures she found at yard sales over the 50 years she has lived in this simple house on a side street in Erie, Pennsylvania. Grace is in her 70s now. Her world revolves around complaining. Most of her conversations involve complaining. Her jokes require a complaint or two. Her compliments are actually given via complaining. Listening to her takes patience and understanding that her life has been tougher than most.
Grace and I are not particularly close, but our conversation turned to the topic of suicide. One of her grandsons had just attempted to end his life, and was lying in recovery on an Army post in Texas. She swore she just didn't understand why he did it--she said this just after explaining how unhappy he was in the Army, and how he did not know what to do. He did this just after a childhood in a troubled family, during which learning how to tackle challenges in a healthy way probably wasn't a top priority.
Grace said that while she's saddened by her grandson's story, there was a more unbelievable one. Get THIS, was her tone: another guy in the Army had also attempted suicide, while being stationed in Hawaii. Sadly, this guy had succeeded. "How can you be depressed in Hawaii?" Grace muttered and whined, suggesting that once in a beautiful place, one's troubles should surely melt away.
The basic storyline of a man depressed enough to kill himself while living in Hawaii has stayed with me in the months following this strange conversation with my pseudo-grandmother in her yard sale-adorned kitchen. It makes so much sense to me. I identified with him.
Here was a man with his own bag of worries, some that he grew up with--say, the inability to admit to weaknesses, the habit of covering up concerns or feelings lest he appear unmanly or ungrateful. As most adults do, some of his past decisions probably haunted him. And he's in the Army, an institution that isn't known for its touchy-feely side.
Enter Hawaii. The sheer fact that he lived in "paradise" might have pushed him over the edge. Not just because of the distance from his friends and family back on the mainland and the overwhelming expense it would take to see them as frequently as he'd like. Not just because it was a new place for him and the pressure to fit in and hit the ground running was undoubtedly there. But because he was in Hawaii. Isn't everyone happy there? Aren't you supposed to be worry-free as you lie on the beaches and sunbathe, hike the tropical islands, and drink cocktails? When you watch women move their hips in grass skirts and bikini tops, doesn't it make you want to live in the moment, not in the past?
The pressure to be happy and grateful is intense. It can get to you.
I live in a cheery yellow house at the end of a picturesque gravel road, with woods full of tall, looming trees that surround me at all times. Our house has a wrap-around porch with a wide swing and inviting table. Two big dogs bark and wag their tale to welcome me. My husband is handsome and successful, my kids healthy, bright, and beautiful. I am fit and balanced, with a seemingly carefree smile and easy laugh, good hair and an athletic body.
Yet. And yet. The past few years I have tried unsuccessfully to shake a thin but stubborn blanket of sad off of me. It's not a desperate whirlpool of sad that leads one completely helpless; I remain certain that I can get out from under my sad while in this life of mine. I don't need to end it, regardless of how complicated and imperfect it might feel. A part of me agrees with the message that has consistently and constantly been voiced in my ear: "You should be happy."
The desire to be happy and grateful is intense. The lack of a clear path to it can get to you.