What my 7 year old son and a friend with a terminal illness said about happiness

I’d like to thank the Lexus “December to Remember” commercial for fueling my recent obsession with happiness.

You know the commercial: On a perfect snow sparked morning a well groomed man finds a new Lexus topped with a big red bow trophied in his sprawling driveway. The man smiles then hugs and kisses the hood of his new toy as his tall, attractive wife and their beautiful blue-eyed children stand nearby and smile and dote and radiate with plastic happiness as a voice tells you how easy and affordable it is for you to own a sleek, well-equipped Lexus.

The message is simple and clear — If you buy or lease a Lexus this holiday season you can buy or lease happiness.

Now that’s a good looking family…but it’s an even better looking Santa Claus!

The commercial then gives way to the football game my 7 year old son and I are watching. We’re curled together on the couch, sharing a blanket. It’s a rare scene, especially for December. My son, the Energizer Bunny, is almost always moving, always playing. And with the promise of Christmas so close, his energy seems even more boundless. But at this moment, he is still, as if someone removed his batteries, and I know this might just be my only time to ask him.

“Hey Chase can I ask you something?”

The quarterback drops back to pass. Chase delays his response long enough where I think he’s ignoring me. The quarterback completes a 12 yard pass to a receiver who’s shoved out of bounds by a streaking defender. First down.

The teams huddle and the referee sets the football at the line of scrimmage and without unlocking his eyes from the television looking Chase says, “Okay.”

A little surprised he was even listening, I nod and smile and ask, “What makes you happy?”

The quarterback drops back to pass again and Chase turns and looks thoughtfully at me, as thoughtfully as a 7 year old can look, smiles and says “ I guess…spending time with you and mom.”

“Really?”

“Yeah like when we all went to the movies last week. That was fun.”

He smiles.

I smile.

Touchdown.

I didn’t want to text my friend. She’s dying.

My friend Deb Dauer was diagnosed with ALS in September of 2013. Before her diagnosis, she was an elementary school teacher in the district where I teach and an early supporter of Write on Fight on. Now she’s chronicling her inspiring fight with ALS on her blog Not Gonna Be a Debbie Downer. 

Though my interactions with Deb have been mostly through email and Facebook, I feel a kinship with her. We are parents and teachers and writers who, for better or worse, wear our hearts on our sleeve.

I felt like an asshole bothering Deb with my pretentious existential crisis. I mean, she’s warring with one of the most hellacious diseases we’ve never cured. Clearly, she’s busy.

But the question lingered then gnawed. What would someone with a terminal illness say about happiness? 

It took me almost an hour editing and revising and second-guessing and ego-checking before I finally braved up and sent the following text…

“What makes you happy? Lately I’ve been obsessing over natural vs. plastic happiness and would value your sentiments. But please, no obligations. Be well.”

True to her awesome self, Deb responded with…

“What I’ve found that it is connections with other people that really make me happy. And in turn time and experiences with them.”

In the heart of the Lexus “December to Remember “ sales event Chase and Deb confirmed what I already knew, what most of us know — that relationships are the fruits of happiness. A 7 year old boy, a dying woman cemented such truth — we are fragile and finite but in relationships we find strength, we experience forever.

Why is such simplicity so hard to understand? Why do we foolishly think that one more material possession will sprout the happiness we so desperately desire?

And so if growing up is a just matter of perspective, it’s curious to think that we’ll spend so much pain, energy and money trying to realize what we knew all along.

Be well,

Jay

PS–Checkout this 6 minute feature on the Write-a-thon! I want to thank all my colleagues and students who made this awesome event possible.

The Only Way to Find Happiness

On a recent cold, wind-snapped morning, I asked class of college-bound high school seniors a simple question.

What brings you happiness? (I know, a simple yet dicey question to ask a bunch of curiously bored 17 year olds).

Their answers were both surprisingly PG and unsurprisingly boring: Sleep, Saturday, my bed, Netflix, my dog (because all he does is sleep).

I asked if they considered themselves to be happy.

Answers were mixed. Some yes, some no, and some blank stares.

I asked if they even wanted to be happy?

Yes, more then anything.

I asked if happiness, like success, is something we need to work for?

The sky clouded over. The radiator hummed. Heads began to nod. Yes. Happiness like good grades, they said, is something we need to work for.

I leaned against my desk and held a long, contemplative teacher’s stare.

So more then anything you want to be happy?

Yes.

So, are you willing to work for your happiness?

Silence.

Because after 36 years, through my own trails and tribulations, I’ve learned that happiness is not given. It’s earned.

Happiness is not borrowed like Algebra homework. It’s not a signed check tucked in a graduation card. And happiness is certainty not found in such desperate acts of hoping or wishing.

Happiness is work. Muscle-straining, hand-wringing, bone-breaking work. Happiness comes from doing.

I also know happiness is not for the weak. It’s not for faint of heart.

Because real, lasting happiness requires you to do uncomfortable things. Let go. Give up. Be honest. Move on. Admit flaws. Admit mistakes. Accept judgment.

Happiness begins when your fear ends. When you find the courage to crucify yourself. When you utter the fragile first words of the conversation you’ve spent you’re whole life avoiding.

A throat cleared. A hard wind lashed about the classroom windows.

It takes a daily courage to roll up your sleeves and work through the unhappiness of your life.

It is then, and only then, when you acknowledge and accept that happiness is work, hard earned work, that you begin to feel it’s great warmth and reap its great rewards.

Be well,

Jay