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Rant #258
(published December 22, 2005)
It's Okay For Me To Be Happy
by Gwendolyn Joyce Mintz
Even though I'd sought out therapy, I balked when the psychologist told me that happiness was indeed my right and that I was not responsible for the unhappiness of others.

"You're wrong," I said, citing examples from my childhood which showed how I'd made my mother unhappy.

He wasn't impressed or changed.

"If your mother was unhappy, she chose to be and you're doing the same," he told me.

I left his office that day, sure that our sessions were over. How could he help me? He obviously didn't know what he was talking about.

I returned within a month.

In that time not spent in counseling, I went back over my life searching for the birth of my unhappiness. The counselor's words resonating in my head, I came to understand this: If happiness was my right, then it was also my responsibility. Which meant I could do something about it. And that meant I had to (again) face my core belief that I simply had no right to happiness.

My parents, born black in Southern states, were the children of sharecroppers. They didn't have the opportunities I did. I went to an integrated school just down the street. They walked in whatever weather while the White children rode by in buses and laughed at the Negroes. They had to rise early in the morning to pick cotton; I rose early only to watch cartoons on television. Their lives had been painful but too frequently we were asked to share the blame of it.

Laughter was dangerous. "Do you think life is some kind of joke?" my mother would snap if she overhead us giggling.

I couldn't feel gratitude for all the guilt and pain crowding my heart. My family was one that, when unhappy (and that was its primary status) its members struck out verbally and physically. It was easy to forget happiness when you were the dumping ground for other people's "un."

I have a compassionate heart, hate to see others in pain, but looking back over my childhood, I saw that I took it to mean that I had to be miserable as well. Or if I could somehow suffer more than the other person, well hell, even better.

Back in counseling I sorted through the mess in my heart, giving the pain I was lugging around back to those to whom it truly belonged. I wrote affirmations. I deserve to be happy. It's okay for me to be happy. My happiness is my right. I embraced the rage simmering; hundreds of pages spent letting my unspoken pain have its say.

My fight for happiness felt at times like a battle I would not win. I kept making the wrong choices in men, jobs and cars. They drained me; cost me more in time, money and energy than I could wisely afford. My happiness at stake, I forced myself to make different decisions.

I listened more closely to what a man said, responded accordingly and instantly changed my happiness quotient. "Oh you don't want a steady relationship? Well, that's what's gonna make me happy right now so I guess, no, I can't hang out with you."

"Yes, I know I usually fill in those hours but I'm (fill in the blank) this weekend so I can't work."

"Yes, the car is new. I'm very happy not worrying about constant breakdowns and repairs. Thank you."

I believed life was testing me and I was acing everyone until the tests turned brutal. My brother was murdered. The man I was in a relationship with was stabbed during an argument and died hours later. A good friend committed suicide. Another friend was killed in a motorcycle accident — all in a four-year period.

Guilt taunted me. I was alive; how could I keep asking for happiness as well? I didn't ask for it, though. I demanded it.

My retreating and becoming unhappy would bring none of them back. I struggled with grief but I had already passed an important mark and there was no turning around. I was alive. I was blessed to be. Honoring that meant that I had to enjoy life: I Had To Be Happy.

It took years, over a decade, for me to arrive at the moment when I would finally choose the ultimate of happinesses for myself.

I'd always wanted to be a writer and four years ago, I quit my job with its nice paycheck and perks in order to do so. I wasn't necessarily "unhappy" in that job; it, in fact, brought me great satisfaction, but it didn't make me deliriously happy. I wanted nothing less than that for myself.

There are people being murdered in the world. Women are mistreated. Prisons are crowded and so are foster homes. Sexual abuse runs rampant. AIDS, too. There are children starving everywhere, including America. Someone, somewhere, is doing without things basic for human existence.

While it sometimes feels wrong to seek happiness when all this other exists, I do. I know now that I'm not responsible for the misery and suffering plaguing the world though I do believe I have an obligation to do what I can to alleviate it, if for only one other person. Sacrificing my happiness, though, is not the answer. My being happy does not create unhappiness in the world just as my choosing to be unhappy could not bring happiness to the world.

I can only do what's within my power to do. So I write stories in hopes of enlightening others, educating others, to possibly affect those truly in a position to positively change things.

There are times when I may feel guilt when reading the newspaper or listening to the news, but I've learned to adjust my thinking. I have compassion for the world's suffering but I've also developed gratitude for my situation. Gratitude born from honoring my right to happiness.

Misery may indeed love company, but, these days, I try to never R.S.V.P.

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