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By Brittany Anne Smith
Ernest Hemingway said to write hard and clear about what hurts. A truth I am trying to champion is that there is an acuity to my words only when they are written extractions of my tragic vulnerabilities (proof: here); I want to be able to extract my happiness with the same amount of expressive precision. I have hesitated for quite some time to publish this part of my life for fear of brandishing my unpleasantries for the world wide web to witness. But, another truth I am trying to overcome is that I am not very brave. And so I am going to do as Ernest urged. He was, after all, a man so very handsome, and as “I’m just a girl who cain’t so no” to a handsome man…
The months leading up to my 28th birthday were some of the darkest I can remember. I had been living emptily for an offensive amount of time and as a result, even my desire to deluge the emptiness had atrophied. I felt hollow and helpless. I stayed in bed for days and lived off of dark chocolate covered pomegranates and Downton Abbey and slept the daylight away because I didn’t want to encounter anything that bore light of any form. Any and every memory of insecurity toxically seeped to the forefront of my consciousness and coated all my meditations with derisive adjectives like “dismissible,” “inadequate,” “unremarkable,” “defective,” “worthless”… Vocabulary which stung my waking awareness so sharply that sleep was the only remedy, albeit temporary.
There were at least two culprits behind how wretched my world was then. The first was that it was constructed almost solely out of comparisons. I couldn’t manage introspection without it inevitably leading to jealousy. I was 28, with no (preferrably bearded) man, no (preferrably rotund) babies, no efflorescent career path, no mellifluous singing voice or Pinterest worthy crafty skills or any (perceivably) real talents to speak of. So instead, I became a master of envy. I was jealous of women who had husbands coming home to them every night, and holding their hands whenever they wanted, and providing another heart to beat in unison with during the privacy of the night and the uncertainty of unknown futures. I was jealous of mothers, for what is better than a baby, really? There is something truly reverent to me about motherhood; having another little heart beat inside of you, being the steward of such an investiture. I found reason to covet any beneficiary of fulfilled aspirations or commendable accomplishments, even if they weren’t successes I would necessarily desire for myself. Women graduating and moving on to pursue loftier heights of progression made me sink lower and lower into my poisonous stagnation. Long torsos, long legs, long hair, long vibratos… I really can’t continue without my misanthropic flag flying any higher. All the envy I was accommodating was carving me up inside, creating empty canyons for Comparison to rear it’s diabolical claws into my soulscape and choke every good thing I ever believed about myself. What I wasn’t brave enough to face at the time was that it wasn’t just constant comparison that was so pernicious. It wasn’t even the prime culprit. The instigator, the perverse ring-leader of all of this was ugliness was me. I hadn’t tried reaching for anything in so long that my grasp had withered. It was just so much easier to wilt than it was to bloom. And so it was, that with each day that passed by unadorned with even the smallest breath of effort or seen grace, I unwittingly buried myself deeper and deeper into the unforgiving place in which I found myself three years ago.
We all construct the worlds inside of us differently, and out of so many different kinds of matter. I love the implications of that, too. Matter being literally what things are made of, and figuratively speaking, what we choose to let matter tends to shape our existence. At that time, the walls of my world were defined by the space in-between dotted lines that led to absolutely nowhere. When things seem that desolate, whether self-inflicted or otherwise, your only hope is the foundation by which you’ve always been able to find your footing. But how do you find that foundation when it has been buried beneath layers and layers of deceitful and debilitating debris? I am, at my core, a woman of faith. But somewhere along my path (if you could even call it that), I had forgotten how to be her. Who knows how long she had been imploring before I finally met her muted beseeching with a desperate and feeble plea of my own, to the only source in which I had any semblance of hope anymore. As long as my memory endures, I will always hold fast to the mercy I was met with that day, for with that feeble and desperate plea, a whisper of no more than three or four monosyllabic words strung together, Heaven’s hand made its way into my awareness and reminded me that I was not meant to reside in so sullen a place. That small glimpse of light was all that I needed to begin my ascent back into the world that was waiting for me, within me.
Imparting a truth most relentless, William Butler Yeats said, “Happiness is neither virtue nor pleasure nor this thing nor that, but simply growth. We are happy when we are growing.” I read that shortly after the escape (as I should heretofore refer to it), and it has been axiomatic for my life ever since. I realized that I could not have even an inkling of a hope of a happiness if I did not start trying for something, dammit. And, I needed to relinquish the firm grasp I had on all that envy lest my knuckles got any whiter. It’s true what all those Pinners pin: Comparison really is the thief of Joy. I won’t outline the quotidian details of how I worked my way out of that stale sadness, because I don’t think they are necessarily as important as what the driving force behind them was. But know that I had to take some very intentional, very concentrated measures, seeking out happiness in even the smallest of doses. Since childhood, I have had a knack for appreciating life’s small and simple pleasures, but this was the very first time when those little graces became my saving graces. “After all,” Anne had said to Marilla once, “I believe the nicest and sweetest days are not those on which anything very splendid or wonderful or exciting happens but just those that bring simple little pleasures, following one another softly, like pearls slipping off a string.” I had to collect those little happinesses one by one and allow them to fill in the hollowness inside of me. Being the alacritous diarist that I am, I started a journal and began to keep track of all these little pearls. Here are just a few I recorded: “summer rain storm, a clean house, new words, the smell of lavender, music that gets me through traffic, inhaler, my skin clearing up, the unconditional love of children, Arrested Development, clean sheets, having siblings who are also friends, discovering new quotes, Alison Krauss, free dinner, The Sound of Music, a car that runs, my heating pad, how anchoring believing in the Savior is, spin class (kind of) sleeping with the window open in the summer, my favorite little old house on Center Street with the green shutters, the sun – always the sun, fresh daisies…” You get the idea. As those slowly became sown and harvested, I began to acquaint myself with Hope again, and that hope helped to close the space in between those aforementioned aimless dotted lines and turn them into a path leading to anywhere I wanted to end up. And what of that growth Sir Yeats mentioned? Well, I did a little of that, too. I made myself be brave. I sang in front of a hundred people and didn’t faint or throw up, not even once. I asked for things, and I sought after things. I didn’t get all of them, but I certainly got some of them, and each time I did, it renewed my hope in faith un-tethered and the grace that is inherent in our happiness. I remembered how much my words meant to me. And so I stopped neglecting them. I realized that maybe my gifts weren’t Pinterest worthy, but they were mine, and that was enough.
My life within the last three years has provided a marked awakening in so many ways. I certainly cannot be happy if I am culling comparisons all the live long day. I cannot be happy if I am not learning. I cannot be happy if I am not growing in some direction. Perhaps these are lessons consciously recognized by Happyites everywhere, but I have always been a late bloomer. I have tried with all my might to figure out how to culminate happiness so that it can grow inside of me, and I have learned that though the vagaries of life may press on and threaten our potential to grow, if we learn to till the happiness that is deeply rooted within us, life can still be verdant. Maybe the grander purpose to that dark harrowing of my soul was a better understanding of what I have been given, innately, as seedlings of happiness and to understand the necessity of caring for those seedlings to make them floriferous. Maybe that bleak deadness was necessary for me to learn that I could create a reserve of happiness within myself that I could access when outside sources and unforgiving circumstances weren’t providing it. I have found that along with the nerves and tendons and bones and organs that all come to form the entities that we are, that woven within our very beings are threads that are indigenous only to us as individuals, things that each one of our hearts incline to, and perhaps it is in clinging to those things that allows us to cultivate happiness no matter what the season. Every summer, I feel so full of light and warmth and life that it seems and feels that the very sun itself radiates from inside my ribcage. And then winter comes, slowly, surreptitiously divesting away all those hopeful beams until summer seems like merely an illusory daydream. I don’t want my happiness to disappear as soon as the summer fades, or the sun has set on my holiday, or the last firework bursts and then gracefully dissipates into nothing but a brief and beautiful memory… or whatever other End. If I choose only to be warm when the sun is shining, the very threads of life itself become far too precarious.
There is no great secret to capturing happiness that I have to disseminate; indeed, I think that it can be as intricate a concept as any, as human beings and their instrumentations are as intricate a concept as any. But I can say that for me, happiness can’t be merely an adornment of fortuitous circumstance, because I will lose it as quickly as I find it. For me, happiness is and must be this: a diligence, an exertion of my conscientiousness directed to whatever engenders a peaceful fullness of life. It is finding one small measurement, at least one small chord of goodness in each waking day. And I am still learning, often with a great degree of novelty as each day can be so different from the next with what it gives, the adaptability that is somewhat inherent in the habit of happiness. I learned the word “chatoyant” recently. It means “varicolored when seen in different lights or from different angles.” I think happiness is much like that. So often it is abundant, but can also be abundantly subtle. It depends on from what angle we are choosing to look. One hopeful little aperture was all I needed to find my way out of the darkness and into the effulgence of what my life has been these last few years, but I absolutely had to look for it.
One of my favorite quotes is from Alice Walker. She said, “Whenever you are creating beauty around you, you are restoring your own soul.” Perhaps that is her own brand of happiness. If I had to put mine so succinctly, I might add the verb “finding,” too.