Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Pursuit of Happiness

So late May/early June is when I hear a lot of graduation speeches.

This can be fairly mind numbing, as clichés seem to have their origins in the Graduation Speech genre. One group of inventive Bowdoin College profs I know (names withheld to protect the guilty) have come up with a sort of “bingo” they play during the graduation ceremony, checking off boxes whenever a speaker utters a particular cliché (references to the ivory tower, going forth into the world, etc.), and jumping out of their seats and shouting the name of the current governor when they have checked off all the boxes on their cards.

It’s disruptive, highly amusing to those in the know, and puzzling to the other graduation attendees.

So I was amazed and delighted to hear a speech, written by a young man who graduated from Middlebury College this past February, which not only made me laugh out loud, but made me think. Rethink, actually. And question my assumptions about a few things I had previously held dear.

Here's the excerpt that grabbed me:

The problem with the American dream, the dream so often spouted on days like today, is not simply that it leaves us chasing material success, thinking that if we just get a bigger car, a bigger house, a bigger TV, then we will be happy. It’s the very idea of the pursuit of happiness. Because happiness is not something you pursue. It’s something you create.

I loved that. The idea that happiness isn't a goal or a pursuit, but a creation. And not necessarily for ourselves.

Then, this week, an article in The Atlantic came to my attention. It was titled "How to Land Your Kid in Therapy," and the basic premise is that parenting with a primary goal of raising happy children might be resulting in a generation of unhappy adults. It also posits that shielding kids from disappointment and rejection and pain doesn't do them any favors.


How many times as parents do we say, regarding our children and their futures, “I just want them to be happy.” As if that's the ultimate bottom line? The most important attribute we could ascribe to their adult selves?

Is there really anything wrong with that?

As a parent, it’s hard to hear one of your kids say “I’m not happy.” I mean, it’s sort of hard to hear it from a three-year old. But it’s sharply painful to hear it from a teenager/young adult. Your instinct, instilled from the moment of his/her birth, is to apply the bandage/erase the hurt/make it better. Because isn’t that our job? To make them well? Guide them along the road to happiness?

This article, and that speech, made me rethink happiness. I wondered, what if we stopped pursuing happiness, or just stopped considering it altogether? What would we insert in its place? What might constitute a better "pursuit?"

And how would my focus as a parent have changed if, instead of "I'm not happy" my son/daughter said, "I'm not ... compassionate."

How about, “I’m not generous.” “I’m not loving.” “I’m not kind.” "I'm not thoughtful."

When I look at it that way ... wow. Being somewhat unfulfilled or a bit bored with life or bummed out because you didn’t get invited to the party or disappointed because you didn’t get into your first choice college is … fine. Manageable. Lacking compassion is devastating.

I’m not sure how to resist being swept up in the cultural tsunami of The Self Actualized, Happy-at-all-Costs Child. It's tough enough to swim against the tide of parents in your own community, let alone a whole nation. Where we seem to think we have a constitutional right to happiness.

Maybe it's simply a matter of reordering priorities. Maybe move "compassion" to the top of the list for things we hope our children attain. Along with a capacity to forgive. The ability to show love. Loyalty. Generosity.

Somehow, I think if we make those sorts of things the goals, happiness will just happen. Something we discover along the way to a productive, unselfish life.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Return of The Dude

It always takes me about one full week to adjust to summer.

Huh? you ask. Adjust to what? Sunshine and warmth? Fresh vegetables from the market, flowers in the garden, grilling, school’s out … ah.

Yes. School’s out. That’s it.

All the glories of summer in Maine aside, my head and my schedule have to make a tremendous adjustment each June to Teens at Home. Large bodies, fairly inert except for trips to the refrigerator, filling the house, filling the couch, filling the bed until long after noon … It knocks me off track, I’ll confess, especially since I’ve had ten months of quiet days to write, with only the dog making demands for the occasional walk.

In all fairness, I’m not describing my daughter, who is a veritable dervish most of time, and even when she is “relaxing” is productive in her art room, or trotting off to the library for a new book on tape, or going to her summer job or heading with friends to the beach. She’s actually the kid we entreat to watch more television, maybe play a few rounds of Angry Birds on the iPad.

No, I’m talking about The Dude, who has returned from college. Where, reportedly, he functioned. He got up and went to class and, judging from the grades he received, did the reading and learned something. He did laundry. He went to meals, joined clubs, made friends. In other words: The Dude was alive.

But then, year over, he returned to the nest.

“So what’s with the vegetative state?” little sister asked me, upon his return. The contents of his dorm room were still strewn about his room, which did not smell good. Which was probably due to the fact that the door remained closed well into the early afternoon, as he slept.

“What happened last night?” his father asked me, when, his day beginning at 2:00 in the afternoon, after his beauty rest and shower, The Dude met up with friends and returned loudly home at 1:30 A.M. It sounded like thieves had broken into the house and were ransacking the refrigerator.

I don’t why everyone expects me to have the answers to these questions.

“What happened?” I asked The Dude. “Did you have a lobotomy when no one was looking?”

“Huh?” was the reply. Truly, he was perplexed.

While there may well be no answer to this problematic question of why and how young people, who fully function as adults out of the parental home, manage to completely regress once back in the bosom of their families, there is a solution: The Summer Job.

In The Dude’s case, this is quite a job. Not only will he leave the parental nest once again and relocate to an island in Maine, but he will be responsible for a camp’s worth of boys for six solid weeks. He’ll be a camp counselor/tennis instructor/trip leader, taking boys into the woods or down Maine’s rivers for days at a time.

He will not only get himself up and jump in the lake at 7:30 every morning, but he will get The Little Dudes up. He will not only keep his tent clean and his stuff organized, he will entreat Little Dudes to do likewise. He will nag. He will remind. He will instruct.

He will know how it feels to push molasses up a mountain. And yes, I’m enjoying this.

Best of all, for six weeks, The Dude’s focus will be on someone else. Instead of being taken care of, he’ll do the caretaking. Instead of “self actualizing” he’ll help others come into their own, make friends, learn new skills. He’ll work to keep them safe and help them have a memorable summer.

I really can't think of a better way for him to spend his time right now.

So, tonight’s the farewell dinner and movie with The Dude, then he’s off. Little sister, The Dervish, will still be home, so life’s not quiet … but it’s not sponge life, either.

The New York Times had a great feature about teens finding summer jobs this season, which we all know is no easy thing in this economy. Take a look. I particularly enjoyed the kid in the carrot suit.