Friday, September 13, 2013

To Cheer Yourself

I started reading the Happiness Project blog several months after Eliza died.  It was kind of a perverse experiment, I think, because I felt that I shouldn't try to be happy and yet I was so sick and tired of being sad.  I didn't think there were small things I could do to make myself feel happy when I still felt so overwhelmed with grief, and yet I was starting to realize that I was finding pockets of enjoyment.  I felt weird and conflicted about it--how could Say Yes to the Dress make me "happy" when my baby was dead?  But it was also such a relief to let myself feel something besides overwhelming anguish every moment of the day.

I sort of hated the blog--it often seemed like the self-assured privilege of someone who had never experienced grief like mine writing so confidently about how to be happy.  But sometimes there were things that reminded me that the reason we think about happiness is because we often--all of us--experience its opposite.  One of the things I happened upon was a list of "Nineteen Tips" for cheering yourself up--written by a guy named Sydney Smith to his friend, Lady Morpeth in 1820.  I don't know why Lady Morpeth was unhappy, and I wonder, when she received his letter, whether she felt his list was obnoxious and stupid.  If she was in the early dark days of grief, she undoubtedly did.  But if life was starting to hold a flicker of interest for her once more, she just might have started to realize that maybe there was happiness to be found in some of the things on this list.

The ones that really resonate with me are 3, 8, 15, and 17.

“1st. Live as well as you dare. 
2nd. Go into the shower-bath with a small quantity of water at a temperature low enough to give you a slight sensation of cold, 75 or 80 degrees. 
3rd. Amusing books. 
4th. Short views of human life—not further than dinner or tea. 
5th. Be as busy as you can. 
6th. See as much as you can of those friends who respect and like you. 
7th. And of those acquaintances who amuse you. 
8th. Make no secret of low spirits to your friends, but talk of them freely—they are always worse for dignified concealment. 
9th. Attend to the effects tea and coffee produce upon you. 
10th. Compare your lot with that of other people. 
11th. Don’t expect too much from human life—a sorry business at the best. 
12th. Avoid poetry, dramatic representations (except comedy), music, serious novels, melancholy, sentimental people, and everything likely to excite feeling or emotion, not ending in active benevolence. 
13th. Do good, and endeavour to please everybody of every degree. 
14th Be as much as you can in the open air without fatigue. 
15th. Make the room where you commonly sit gay and pleasant. 
16th. Struggle by little and little against idleness. 
17th. Don’t be too severe upon yourself, or underrate yourself, but do yourself justice.
18th. Keep good blazing fires. 
19th. Be firm and constant in the exercise of rational religion. 
20th. Believe me, dear Lady Georgiana."

#3: I found solace in books--first ones that were all about grief, and then ones that were not about grief at all.

#8: I found comfort in talking freely about my low spirits with friends who understood.  It's true that "they are always worse for dignified concealment."  Nothing was harder than getting through a day (or a conversation) pretending to be okay when I wasn't.

#15: I diverted my attention from grief to repainting and redecorating my living room.  I was amazed that I was capable of distraction, and it was a relief to fall asleep thinking about curtains instead of crying myself to sleep.

#17: It was difficult not to be too hard on myself.  I often felt like I should be feeling better and then, occasionally, like I should be feeling worse.  Grief gets more complicated when guilt intrudes.  The idea of going easy on yourself reminds me of "When you're weary, find relief. When you're strong, find delight."  Once I gave myself permission to do that, it was easier to get through the bad days and the good ones.

Now that I find myself upon more even ground with my grief--always carrying it, but balancing it in a way that seemed unimaginable at first--I think it's kind of amazing that two hundred years hasn't done much to change what makes people feel cheerful.

A few of my BLM friends have hit the three year mark of their losses in August and September, and I think their anniversaries have stirred up a lot of sadness for me, as I grieve for them and for myself.

I miss Eliza so much, even though I think most of the time these days I feel pretty happy.  It's a strange place to be--to be constantly aware of an aching loss and still have the capacity to be cheerful and truly enjoy myself.  Like learning to walk after an amputation?  C.S. Lewis offers that metaphor for grief and it's one I've always thought apt for describing the colossal damage of having to live without someone you love so much.  The emptiness is there, but life hasn't lost its flavor.

And so I think I need to try to see as much as I can of friends who respect and like me, to attend to the effects of tea and coffee, and to keep good and blazing fires (weather permitting).

I also need to finish the chairs to go with my table so that the room where I commonly sit will be gay and pleasant.  That should cheer me up.


  1. I respect you. Can we hang out soon?

    Also, not sure about the cold water in the shower. That may have an adverse affect on my happiness.

  2. I LOVE C.S. Lewis. B and I are going to see a C.S. Lewis scholar at church on Sunday night. I'm a huge nerd and super excited.

  3. I'll attend to the effects of coffee with you anytime.

  4. I'm ridiculously entertained that the religion you should choose to have firm and constant involvement in must be a rational one.