My beloved cat is in decline.
She came to us from a pet store 17 years ago, and it was her decision. We’d picked out a different cat at the store to bring home, but Madeleine would not be denied. Somehow she got into my arms and we took to each other immediately. As my daughter and I tried to decide which one to take, a total stranger walked up to me and said, “Take ‘em both.”
We have never regretted taking both. Madeleine and I have remained close through all these years. And now, between the tumor in one mammary and the limp in the opposite leg, she is probably facing her final days.
Oddly this has me thinking about happiness, and the myths we build around it.
As my cat’s health goes downhill, I see numerous places where I’m not making the grade. I should have spent more time with her, but I didn’t. My sadness comes from attachment to beings who change and die—so say my Zen reading and meditation—but the attachment endures regardless. I would like to shove this grief aside, but it does what it wants: moving into my heart and mind like a concrete block, shoving everything out of the way.
There’s very little control here.
And that has me pondering the messages we all hear about control, especially our control of happiness, in situations like these. Happiness is a choice, we’re told. You can’t control events, but you can control your reaction to events. We are the sum of our choices.
Those are alluring myths. Wouldn’t it be lovely if we could choose and control and influence in this way?
What makes the myths dangerous is that they’re partly true. Sonja Lyubomirsky, professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside, is known for her observation that 40 percent of our happiness is within our power to change. One of my neighbors told me that, upon losing his father, he was a mess for two days and then quietly chose to move on with his life, partly because that’s what Dad would have wanted.
But you see, 40 percent isn’t 100 percent. Just because my neighbor moved on doesn’t mean the grief magically left him. And yet, too often, myths like happiness is a choice get condensed and touted into absolute statements, often with a subtle tinge of shaming: “If happiness is a choice, why aren’t you choosing it? If you can control your reactions, why are you letting this get the best of you?”
And I want to say: Shut up. My cat is dying.
Even while commending my neighbor for the courage to move on, and celebrating the 40 percent of mood we can influence, I don’t want to choose happiness or control my reactions if it blinds me to life’s darker events. I want to look them in the eye with as much clarity of vision as I can. I want to live into what is.
Our faith traditions echo this desire. The Bible is chock-full of people confronting the vast array of life’s events with the vast array of human emotion, including full-throated anger at God’s maddening ways. So many of the Buddha’s teachings lead to the unflinching view of existence as it is—how it moves from birth to fruition to old age and death.
Just as important, faith invites us to savor the wisdom that the sorrow might hold. I don’t know that I would appreciate the boundless love of God, or “the fear of the Lord,” or the beauty of life’s impermanence without having stared into the abyss. Only by wrestling with depression have I come to treasure the notion that, so often, our pathologies are the flip side of our strengths.
Does all this wisdom make the sad events easier to endure? Not one bit. It just makes life richer.
Maybe wisdom will come from Madeleine’s passing. Maybe not. Maybe no-wisdom is its own lesson. I won’t know for a while. Until then, it’s sit and wait and make her comfortable and savor her last days.
This article first appeared at The Huffington Post, March 1, 2017.