“Happiness is a journey, not a destination.”
This is the message on a birthday card from my daughter, and I’m glad I opened it a day early. She left it here at the end of the Thanksgiving weekend, along with a softly-scented candle packaged in a pretty box, on the dresser in her bedroom. Of course, I found it while I was tidying up, but I left it there, untouched. I’m pretty good at waiting until The Day, because anticipation is half the fun, you know. But this time I broke my own rule; today I treated myself to her birthday-eve gift.
I love the candle, but I think the card is going to burn longer, as I think about its message and how it applies to me.
Only yesterday I was thinking about the different stages in a woman’s life and how each one offers a different sort of happiness. The simple, innocent happiness of childhood is so pure and uncomplicated. All too soon it is replaced by the growing awareness in adolescence that life really is not all that simple. Still, the happiness that one experiences in that topsy-turvy, turbulent time of life is so intense and sharp that it can take your breath away – a first taste of love, a first taste of freedom, a sense of standing on the brink of life with the whole world at your feet – all the accompanying disappointments, inadequacies and fears aren’t enough to dull those brilliant glimpses of a future filled with promise.
How does it happen so quickly? You wake up one morning and find that your life has become almost unrecognizable, turned into a virtual whirlwind. Instead of a vast future unfolding before you, now all you can do is try to hang on in the spin. With a husband, a family, a community and perhaps a job, each making incredible demands upon you, it is hard to slow the spin down long enough to savor the moments. Perhaps it comes late at night, when all the house is sleeping, and you are still awake. Your children in a happy dreamland of their own, your husband’s sleeping brow finally relaxed and untroubled by the cares of his own responsibilities, your home quiet and calm for the first time all day – and you realize your happiness is drawn from theirs. Shh, don’t wake anyone up!
Before long, though, there comes a time when you can take a deep breath, look up from your busyness, and it gradually dawns on you that the whirlwind has begun to slow. You look at your children with eyes that seem suddenly cleared of fog, and you realize that they are adults, perhaps with families of their own now. When did it happen? And what is this new feeling you are experiencing? It’s a new kind of happiness, born of feelings of accomplishment, of satisfaction, of a job well done – well, mostly. There are challenges in those new families you’ve spawned; but for the most part they aren’t yours for the bearing. It is someone else’s turn.
And, you? You now have time for some new things – trying your hand at something you’ve always wanted to do, realizing that failure isn’t the issue, and that the fun and satisfaction are in the trying. The standards are ones YOU set for yourself, not based on someone else’s expectations. And there is a deep, soul-pervading happiness in that! You may not write the next great American novel, but you can spin a story your great-grandchildren will love someday. You accept that you’re never going to be thin and rich, so you make friends with yourself, as you are. You admit that you’re not going to take a trip around the world and visit all the exotic places you’ve dreamed about, but you find new avenues for exploration that are within your scope, and you find they’re delightful, perhaps right in your own backyard.
You look at your husband and realize there is a new ease about him, too, and you discover that you can freely enjoy each other – just each other – for perhaps the first time since you can remember. If he brings you a perfect hornet’s nest for your birthday, it’s priceless, because you know he thought you’d love it. If you ignore the laundry and dirty floors and spend half a day with him in a jarring, rough-riding truck going to the back of nowhere, just because he wants to be with you, the happiness is truly sweet.
And, maybe best of all, you finally have the time to do something for someone else, other than your own family. It isn’t necessarily in a third-world country and it doesn’t demand a major life change, but there are vast opportunities for giving to others, a whole mission field in your backyard. Finding your niche and really investing in it yields a solid return of happiness like no other venture. This is joy in the deepest sense of the word, to know you’ve somehow made a difference.
This is where I am today, as I stand on the brink of adding yet another number to the tally of my years. None of us knows where our happiness journey will take us tomorrow, but I’m not worried about it. Lots of bad things happen, and lots of good things happen to all of us along the way. I know I’ll wake up one day and find myself in a different place in life and it will hold a new promise of happiness. I hope it will include wisdom, contentment, peace and the love of others. Let the journey continue…