Happiness is not always an ending

Filed Under (Uncategorized) by Estee on 10-03-2009

I took this photo a couple of days ago. The park where Adam frequented in summers, it is desolate and gray now with the promise of spring as the snow melts away. I went out on Sunday and began taking photos of that which I will miss when we move from our home. I admit, with so much loss, I can really be queen-of-the-mopers. I can walk around and feel the woe is me deep down in my bones. No, I don’t pull out the booze and talk about what’s wrong with the world. I don’t go that far. It doesn’t mean I’m a sad or depressed person. It just is what it is.

I know I’m not the only one. To deny your moping is just that: denial. The difference between a down-right serious depression and this, is that I think I can measure the space in between loss and happiness. In other words, by writing, painting, taking photographs, whatever, it creates an awareness so I do not become lost in it. I can feel both within the span of a day (no, that doesn’t mean I’m manic). I don’t feel that running away from my feelings of alone-ness will heal me or make things better. Instead, I take photos of it. When I need to dive in, I just do it.

A few months ago, I read that most women suffer from “bag lady syndrome.” It was in the Globe and Mail last fall as well and I remember the story well. Searching on the Internet, there are a deluge of stories on it. No matter how affluent and successful a woman is, she still worries she’s going to end up in the streets. So deep is this affliction, I decided to wallow right in because facing fears is the only way to to minimize them.

“Bag-lady syndrome plagues, puzzles and, in more extreme cases, paralyzes women who want to get a better grip on their financial lives, according to Olivia Mellan, the author of The Advisor’s Guide to Money Psychology and a Washington, D.C., therapist who specializes in money psychology. Lily Tomlin, Gloria Steinem, Shirley MacLaine and Katie Couric all admit to having a bag lady in their anxiety closet.” (MSN Business).

As I did this day of photography, I suddenly came across this bright yellow shopping cart in our neighbourhood park. What struck me is how bright yellow it was (I’ve got a bit of tweaking to do on this photo to bring that out). It’s owner, I imagine, must be some wonderful imaginative bag lady leaving it for a while to find food or objects, for it was not there at the beginning of my walk, but only here at the end of it. The cart is empty, sitting there, an entity waiting to be filled up.

Is that what we are? Just a bunch of numb people waiting to be filled up? As a woman now “on my own,” this is exactly what confronts me. It’s not that I haven’t created ventures and done and accomplished many things. It’s just that when you lose your partner in life, desolate feelings arise within. I am not trying to diminish the value of partnership here by suggesting that it is bad to have a partner in whom you trust to take over aspects of your relationship. Connection should fill us up. It is natural for partners to assume different roles. It is a fact that when your partner leaves or dies, life can be scary and bag lady fears can come rolling in. We have this fine line between being comfortable and confident in ourselves and appreciating even the fleeting reality of connection between people.

Lately, I have been replacing “Bag Lady Syndrome” with The Little Match Girl Syndrome. The story was written by Hans Christian Anderson. Do you remember her? The little girl sent out to sell matches? I bet many people born after 1970 don’t know her at all. With no shoes in the stark cold, she dared to light some of the matches she depended on to make income to keep her warm. In her desolate state, the world buzzing around but ignoring her, she crouches in a corner and begins to imagine a feast, the warmth of her grandmother, a lovely Christmas tree. Her imaginings bring her enormous happiness.

“She hastily struck a whole bunch of matches, because she did so long to keep her grandmother with her. The light of matches made it as bright as day. Grandmother had never looked so beautiful. She lifted the little girl up in her arms, and they soared in a halo of light and joy, far above the earth…”

Of course, by morning, the little match girl is found in that corner, frozen-to-death, passers by only making mere mention of it “she must have frozen-to-death,” they utter. On the last page, which is an illustration without words, the sky shines now two stars, which we imagine to be the little girl reunited with her grandmother.

It got me to thinking more about happiness. In this case, the little girl’s imaginings were necessary for survival. If I were starving, I might pretend to have a big feast if it would make me feel better. If you have access to a computer, I doubt you are one of those people freezing in the streets. You are probably dabbling through your day, in and out of your busy tasks, watching the stock market and drinking a cup of coffee perhaps intrigued by this notion of happiness. Who wouldn’t be?

So I lead to a question here: do you read your children the story of The Little Match Girl? Do you read it as some sort of pity story about poverty and how we have to help the poor? Or do you avoid the story because it contains too much pain? Or do you read it as a story of not only social responsibility but of happiness? What are we really teaching our children about happiness, pain and suffering?

It stuck me when Adam’s assistant picked up the book and read it to Adam (she did not know the story). As she was reading, she felt she had to censor it for Adam’s sake because it was “too sad.” This, a children’s tale! A Hans Christian Anderson tale! Never mind the Brother’s Grimm. I mean, these tales do not have proverbial happy endings. Happiness is not just an ending, its a means and an ending.

Nietzsche said “the measure of a society is how well it transforms pain and suffering into something worthwhile. Not how a society avoids pain and suffering — for Nietzsche, a deeply troubled man…knew that was impossible — but it transforms it.” (The Geography of Bliss)

Aristotle believed that how we pursue happiness matters more than the goal itself. “They are in fact, one and the same, means and ends. A virtuous life necessarily leads to a happy life.” (Ibid).

Perhaps there is something missing when we pursue happiness in things and avoid the pain, the struggle and the “failures” of life. It is missing when we suggest that a goal in autism, even is to make people “normal” or “indistinguishable” because, let’s face it, it will make many parents (not necessarily the autistic people in question) “happier.” If we think it will be easier, we believe it will make us happier.

Everything is tied in to our view of happiness and how we shape and live our lives and how we think we and other people should be. Instead of enjoying the journey, embracing the struggle as if it were a natural part of our existence and an intrinsic part of our overall happiness, we want to avoid it at all costs in favour of something over there — over the rainbow — something better (even if we don’t really know what that is).

Right now, my happiness is in writing, reading, taking photographs and thinking about life itself. It is in my early morning cups of coffee and the luxury (and necessity) of reflection. Happiness right now, is sublime. I suppose with all that life has brought me thus far, the good and the painful, I am not a person to run away. I don’t believe we find happiness in other people, except that connections with other people do bring me much joy. I believe happiness and imagination are so deeply entwined. We make our own happiness.

While these objects stand alone in a desolate landscape (about to turn into a spring), they are in and of themselves entirely beautiful. It brings me happiness to travel to the depths of my feelings about what’s happened in my life lately.

As the woman walks away down the well-known path to her, we know she will yet go someplace else.


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About Me


I’m a PhD candidate at York University, Critical Disability Studies, with a multi-disciplinary background in the arts as a curator and writer. I am the Founder of The Autism Acceptance Project (www.taaproject.com), and an enamoured mother of my only son who lives with the autism label. I like to write about our journey, critical issues regarding autism in the area of human rights, law, and social justice, as well as reflexive practices in (auto)ethnographic writing about autism.