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Dear Daughter, Your Happiness Is Not About You

As a professed Hedonist mother, there is nothing I value more than your happiness. But I'll never tell you to "be happy." Because what I've learned in my 32 years of living is that happiness is not a choice, a right answer, or a reward given to those who deserve it.

It's the magnet that draws us toward life.

Happiness is being fully alive, at one with your heart and soul. It's about how you love, how you lose yourself, and how you rise to challenge. And, okay, it is partially about you, and you do have the power to find it and grow it--but not in the ways our culture might tell you.

Right now, you are four. Right now, you are steeped in a life of unconditional love and (mostly) unflagging attention from your adoring family. You have our full support in getting to know and love yourself--every aspect of yourself, every hue and shade and shadow.

You are only four, but you seemed to appreciate the third movie you've now seen in the theater, Inside Out. Perhaps you didn't appreciate it quite as much as I did, laughing out loud through a disgusting waterfall of tears and snot. But Inside Out demonstrated so beautifully to us both the value of negative emotions--not just that disgust, fear, anger, and sadness have survival purposes, but that they are natural components of a healthy, whole, truly happy emotional life.

You've already started to learn that in the right doses and circumstances, they can even make life more fun. On the first day of summer school, you realized what Pinkie Pie meant with her made-up word "nervous-cited." You've learned that "It's fun to be scared" by spooky stories and the lions at the zoo. You've observed from your father and me and by yourself that it feels good to "get your sads out" with a purging cry. You've found the satisfaction in turning rage into power, Hulk-style. And, being a child, you've discovered the pleasure of holding a fistful of muddy earthworms while squealing, "Eeewwwwww!"

I'll never tell you to "just be happy" and suppress those great feels. The gratification of complex emotion matures as you age. That's why grownups like "yucky" things like coffee, hoppy beer, and dry red wine. The bitters are an acquired taste.

Complex memories, like aged flavors, are the most evocative. Every time I hear the sound of a clarinet, my front teeth hurt, and my tongue remembers the spoiled-banana-flavored splinters of the reed. It sends a little shiver of loathing down my spine. A moment later, those irritating sensations pull me through the glow of the twilight of my childhood, when I was learning to play the clarinet. It was an emotionally rich time in my life, more sweet than bitter from the vantage point of my early 30s. Despite setting my teeth on edge, I can't help smiling at it--recalling the most scandalous and juicy time of life for my Barbies, when my friends and I grew old enough to create soap opera-worthy plot lines, just before we grew too old to play with them at all, even in secret.

Dear daughter, you'll understand when you're older.

As you grow, very soon, it will be time for you to learn some other truths essential to your happiness, such as:

You deserve nothing for being born.


You are not important.

In the big world outside this warm family hug and this shelf of obsessive baby photo albums, your existence means diddly. You are not Queen Elsa of the Special Snowflakes. (You may have noticed this last Halloween, when you roamed the streets, literally among a million other Elsas--but then again, I think you were too wrapped up in the belief that the magical power of your hands was making it snow.)

I won't tell you that you don't have any humungous, incredible powers in your hands--you're already developing them, in fits and spurts of fire like Baby Jack-Jack. Your imagination is one. Your creativity will get you out of many boxes in life. But guess what it takes to nurture that creativity? Boredom. And to grow your other superpowers of emotional control, resilience and gratitude, you need to overcome hardships, get humbled, and practice selflessness. That's right--you need to eat your vegetables, go to bed before the sun sets, wake up to a world that's not all about you, and take some hard knocks in life just to hope for a long life filled with health and happiness.

Some kids, especially privileged kids, don't learn this stuff until they hit puberty like a rough brick wall to the face. That's the worst ever time to be introduced to such truths. Talk about a living hell. So that's why I'm introducing you to these things early, while you're full of bouncy, puppy-lick joy--like how we got all your inoculations on time so you won't need another shot until you're 11, and you got to feel so much pride in getting your last two shots at age four without shedding a single tear--woohoo, get a sticker out of it while you can!--so you can take this medicine with all the spoonfuls of your sugared childhood and enter those tough years with more strength and grace than I had growing up.

Before you have to face real emotional challenges (honey, I am not talking about those times when I won't let you have an ice cream cone before lunch), I am helping you build your skills--of planting the seeds of happiness and also hunting and gathering joys while you wait and see--and the character traits that will carry you through--patience, resilience, creativity, gratitude.

Look around at the world outside of yourself and find places to plant your kindness, generosity, courage, imagination, and wonder, trying your best to do it the right way, according to all the almanacs, and taking some chances with new ideas--no biggie if a few seeds don't germinate. Making mistakes is the best way to learn, and even if you always do it "right," nature guarantees no harvest.

Sometimes, all the sowing of a whole season will be lost to a reasonless storm. When that happens, your saving strengths will be resilience and flexibility, which you cannot develop without frustration in your past.

And when it doesn't happen and the harvest comes in bountiful and ripe, you will praise the skies and celebrate with far greater joy than your neighbor who expected nothing less.

Now, it's all fine and good to have high expectations. Of course, I'd like you to succeed in school and be talented and all that great stuff that earns you gold stars and makes me look fancy in front of the other parents. But remember that old saying, "It's not what you know, it's who you know"--or, to make it even truer, "It's not what you know how to do, it's who you love and who loves you."

As far as success measured in cold cash and button clicks, yes, it's all about how many competitions you win. But that's not what I care about most, and it's not what you should care about most if your top goal is the same as mine, for you to be maximum happy.

The universe is a vast, cold, unknowable expanse. In the grand scheme of things, trying to be the brightest star in the sky is like trying to be the hottest grain of sand on the beach.

Let's look up tonight and observe, as you love to do. That brightest of twinkles in the twilight is Venus. She thinks she's very special--and she is! But only to us. She isn't the brightest spot from everywhere in the universe. She isn't even a star at all, just a humble little planet. But she's close to us in the solar system, and so we receive a lot of her beautiful light.

Like Venus, you are a tiny, humble part of systems much larger, more powerful, and more mysterious than you can imagine--even with your sparkling mind. On a cosmic scale, you are a speck of stardust, moving according to a plan so grand you cannot feel its motion in the pit of your stomach.

Dear daughter, you have a wondrous sphere of influence at an intimate scale. To those closest to you, you are a shining light and a source of warmth. Your very being has a gravitational pull.

And brightness is not the only quality that matters. See how some of the lights in the sky have different colors, different pulsing rhythms. See through the telescope how some have interesting rings, tails, or winks.

Think of yourself as part of an unimaginably beautiful, complete universe. Think of your own conscious, living life as the one, unique chance that the universe will ever have to be Nux Gallica. It's done and seen everything else in the heavens; all it wants for you is that you do you.

Don't try to be one girl expressing herself as the whole universe, that girl who wants to be everything to everyone. Go ahead and play--try on everything at the thrift store!--but remember how to take things off as well as how to put new things on. Trying to be everything to everyone is like trying to juggle all the balls in every circus at once. Trust me, you won't be much of anything to anyone.

When building relationships, you want quality over quantity. There's nothing wrong with having lots of friends, but it's essential that you have good ones--people who respect you, care about you, and make you laugh. Look for the ones who hug you when you're down and when you have something to celebrate.

Dear daughter, you are never doomed to be alone. In this sea of humanity, there are millions of people who, because of their own qualities over which you have no control, are predisposed to love the hell out of you if given the chance to meet you in the right moment. There are some who would hate you, or use you, or drag you down with the mindless panic of a drowning victim, and it isn't easy to tell which ones they are at first. But with the right balance of caution and boldness, judgment and openness, you will be able to harvest limitless bonds of love, no matter where life takes you or how many loves you lose.

Lost loves are not replaceable, dear daughter, not exactly. Not one of us is special in the cosmic sense, but very close up, in specific, in the eyes of one lover gazing upon another, each person who enters our own sphere of intimacy leaves a mark that will never be confused or replaced with another. A person is a signature scent, a blend of color and texture, a proprietary blend of flavors that will live in the deepest recesses of our memories until the day we die. Lost loves are not replaceable, but the wounds they leave behind are healed again and again by new and different loves, more nourishing and fulfilling loves, loves we would never have found without the pain of a previous loss.

Don't expect too much of the wounded, dear daughter, because "doing everything right" does not entitle you to requited affection. You are not owed, and may never receive, an explanation for the brokenness of a relationship, another person's private wounds, or why every seed you plant does not sprout in every soil. You can grow wiser just in guessing at the answer, though, the way taking a practice test improves your later score--even if you never find out which answers are correct. It takes two to tango. Neither your successes nor your failures are all about you.

The record of what you have done, your successes and your failures, is not who you are. You can do a thing that is good or bad, but you choose whether it defines you by choosing whether to accept new challenges or run from them, defend your weaknesses or transform them. Vulnerability allows us to grow. Everyone has flaws, soft spots, and hurts that we need to guard once in a while with a strong coping mechanism. That armor is meant to give you time and space to grow stronger so that you can put it down one day and walk free. It is not meant to be lugged around all your life as a great burden, or worse, an immobilizing prison. No matter what you've done or where you've been, every day you wake up alive is the day you can start over one toe wiggle at a time, just like Uma Thurman in Kill Bill. (You'll probably see it in college on Vintage Film Night.)

You deserve nothing for being born into this world--not punishment for the sins of your ancestors nor rewards for their accomplishments. But you will receive them both--the undeserved barriers and the undeserved gifts--no matter what you do, because nature doesn't care what you deserve. So walk proudly in the shadow of misfortune, because it's not about you. And accept every fortune with gratitude, because a gift is not a gift if it's owed to you.

Satisfaction with life is not about "success" as our pop culture has come to define it--getting rich or famous. It's not even about being good at things. You can take joy in doing something you aren't very talented at. It's called a hobby. If you find an activity that you can ride into the Zone of transcendence and lose yourself in it entirely, you hold a key to your own ecstasy, regardless of whether anyone else bestows accolades or pay.

Your happiness does not depend on the world's opinion of you in general, the comments of strangers, or how well you fit some average or ideal. But it does depend on the relationships you have with people who do matter to you--your family, your friends, your idols and those who look up to you, the ties you seek and nurture.

That love you hold with those people in your sphere is a grace that is neither earned nor deserved, though it increases by being shared, like the light of one sparkler touching another. Your importance to the people around you is conditional, but your beloveds' love for you is not. Regardless of your SAT score, your career, your net worth, your permanent record, or the number of likes on your latest selfie, you are loved.

However, the way you present yourself matters. Don't worry, I'm not about to tell you to "dress like a lady" or anything gross like that. I just mean that when you know yourself--when you know what particular vibes make you light up with joy--it helps to be able to attract more of that energy around yourself. Let the world know by what you do, what you say, and yes, even by how you dress and groom yourself, what you love more than what you don't like. This goes for your physical features--the old "play up your assets" vs. "hide your flaws." (Don't focus on hiding! The people who truly love you will actually like your imperfections, not like you in spite of them!) But I also mean, express yourself in a way that communicates your values and interests so that others who share them can easily find you. Let that freak flag fly (or that normal flag--whatever floats your boat) and let your comrades flock to you. In the company of friends, you won't care so much what unfriendly people think about you from their cold, faraway lairs.

Dress for what you plan on doing that day. Dress for the joy of crafting an aesthetic that pleases you. Dress to make a statement, rebel, or play a game. Dress to please someone you care about. Sure, go ahead. Just remember that it goes both ways--your feelings don't matter more than other people's, and other people's don't matter more than yours. You, however, know best how to make your own self feel comfortable and happy, so take good care of yourself. Always put on your own oxygen mask first.

Be at peace with looking stupid sometimes. Be Zen with your mistakes. Pratice sowing, waiting, harvesting, mourning, and exploring. Laugh often, love the body that is not entirely you but is entirely yours, and keep sacred your time to sleep and dream. Live for the earthy moment, and live for your castles in the clouds. Fall in love, over and over again, with people and animals and places and sensations and activities and books and familiar comforts and new ideas. Feed your spirit, mind, and body, all so unimportant and yet deeply loved. Dance to your own life's rhythms, open your butterfly wings, and sing praises to Hedone for drawing your heart's compass toward bliss.


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