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Happiness: The One Thing Kids/ Teens Already Know (and remind us)

Happy And Sad Smileys Shows Emotions

Jordan, my 17-year-old-son and I were chatting one evening about people’s choices we don’t understand. Their lives often seem self-defeating but in their mind, bring them happiness. With no great answers on why people do what they do, I said, “I just wish them happiness.”

And Jordan said, “I don’t. That’s dumb.”

It was after 9pm. I was tired, and somehow it struck me dead center of fascinating and weird. “Okay. Why?”

“Because I don’t think you should just follow your happiness. I mean, would you want me being with a bunch of girls, drinking, partying and not going to school? That would make me happy.”

Omg. So, I DON’T want him happy? But I do, but not THAT happy. Wait, what? I should have never put back the book, “How To Love Your Teen Philosopher When You’re Genetically Disadvantaged.”

I caved. I went semi- metaphysical-karma-Jesus-love, “ I just don’t know what else to wish them. I can’t judge where people are. I can just wish them the best, because that’s what I would want for myself.” And I knew this was a feeble, feeble answer.

“Well, don’t wish them happiness. That’s just not enough.” I know when I’m on the short end of the thinking stick, and again, it was past 9pm. My brain was reeling because I spent over two years learning to be happy with dark chocolate and Sonya Lubomirski’s book The How of Happiness: Getting the Life You Want. I wanted him happy. But not THAT happy. And now he doesn’t value happiness. Outwitted, outlasted, and outplayed, I ended the conversation.

But while he was at his dad’s I thought about it all weekend. What’s better to teach or wish than happiness?

I wish…. ? Peace? Success? Love?

Every single thing, when considered by itself, could be followed down a path of “it’s not enough.”

Inadvertantly, I stumbled across this piece from David Brooks in The New York Times called, “The Moral Bucket List.” 

Mr. Brooks talks about people he loves to be around and who seem to sparkle in life. I wanted this for my son (I think he already has strong beginnings of this). Toward the end of the article, this nugget called to me,

“Commencement speakers are always telling young people to follow their passions. Be true to yourself. This is a vision of life that begins with self and ends with self. But people on the road to inner light do not find their vocations by asking, what do I want from life? They ask, what is life asking of me? How can I match my intrinsic talent with one of the world’s deep needs? Their lives often follow a pattern of defeat, recognition, redemption. They have moments of pain and suffering. But they turn those moments into occasions of radical self-understanding — by keeping a journal or making art. As Paul Tillich put it, suffering introduces you to yourself and reminds you that you are not the person you thought you were. The people on this road see the moments of suffering as pieces of a larger narrative. They are not really living for happiness, as it is conventionally defined. They see life as a moral drama and feel fulfilled only when they are enmeshed in a struggle on behalf of some ideal.”(1)

Emoticons on note paper attched to rope with clothes pins

Realizing this could spark a complicated, philosophical discussion I would not be prepared for, I decide to not have “the” answer. I decided that being right and imparting my wisdom wasn’t the point because Jordan mattered more.

So I asked teen ninja philosopher, “So what’s better to wish someone than happiness?”

He said, “The world elevates happiness – it’s fun, it’s easy. To me, it’s spiritual and God gives it. I haven’t thought it all the way through. But we also have to accept pain because it’s not always going to be good all the time. But the pain doesn’t stay.”

Holy cow.

He understands the balance of happiness and pain. I am the freaking mother of the year. Wait, no I’m not. I was gunning for happiness. Wait, what?

As I go upstairs to write down his answer he yells, “You probably shouldn’t talk to me about this right now because we’re reading a really dark novel right now (The Jungle by Upton Sinclair) and I’m not focusing on happiness.” I said, “That’s okay! That’s good! Happiness doesn’t matter so much.” (omg.)

All I know is this. He’s not seeking instant feel good choices. He accepts suffering. As his mom, I have to let suffering and pain be the part of his life. He already knows this is part of the deal. He knows that a well loved life isn’t about chasing happiness, that more matters – maybe in the form of joy, which can hold the happiness with the pain.

Mr. Brooks puts it this way…

“This is a philosophy for stumblers. The stumbler scuffs through life, a little off balance… Recognizing her limitations, the stumbler at least has a serious foe to overcome and transcend…. Her friends are there for deep conversation, comfort and advice. External ambitions are never satisfied because there’s always something more to achieve. But the stumblers occasionally experience moments of joy. There’s joy in freely chosen obedience to organizations, ideas and people. There’s joy in mutual stumbling. There’s an aesthetic joy we feel when we see morally good action, when we run across someone who is quiet and humble and good, when we see that however old we are, there’s lots to do ahead. The stumbler doesn’t build her life by being better than others, but by being better than she used to be….But eventually, at moments of rare joy, career ambitions pause, the ego rests, the stumbler looks out at a picnic or dinner or a valley and is overwhelmed by a feeling of limitless gratitude, and an acceptance of the fact that life has treated her much better than she deserves. Those are the people we want to be.”(2)

Knowing my son’s soul understands all this makes me very very happy. No, wait. Not just happy…. 😉

Vikki Spencer



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