Saturday, July 2, 2011

thank you for not killing me, and the perils of happiness

Last Friday night I was tired on my way home from work. I had been up at 5am in the morning as usual, at the gym by 6:15, and home by 8.  I walked and fed the pups and headed into work on my bike.  I am in the middle of Liberty's billing cycle at work so most of the day consisted of sending out invoices to the GCs we had worked for in the past month.  Accounts Receivable is the  most important part of just about any business, but that does not make it any less boring.  So I was already a bit tired when I borrowed the company truck at 5pm to head down I-95 to see Dr. Mathews, who has to straighten out my body each and every week since I got hit by the truck a few years ago or else my back and neck pain as well as a weakness in my leg twists me all up.  He uses A.R.T. and the Graston Technique as well as traditional chiropractic, so it hurts like hell, but he really does straighten me out.   I drove back to Liberty, dropped off the truck and headed home on my bike.

I was listening to a podcast of NPR's Voices in the Family on "The Dark Side of Happiness."  Here is the blurb about the show on the Voices website, which I can't permanently link to so I'm reproducing it here:


Happiness is good for us, right? Thousands of self-help books tell us how to find it...phone apps allow us to track it. The psychology of being happy has been a hot topic in mental health for quite some time. But now, there are some dark clouds on the blissful horizon. New research in the field of positive psychology shows happiness in the wrong time or place can lead to social difficulties. Too much of it could be a sign of mental illness, and the relentless pursuit of it is self-centered and a futile journey anyway. On the next Voices in the Family with Dan Gottlieb: the so-called dark side of happiness with psychologists June Gruber and Dacher Keltner. Gruber has written, in part, A Dark Side of Happiness? How, When, and Why Happiness Is Not Always Good. She's an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Yale University and Director of the Yale Positive Emotion and Psychopathology (YPEP) Laboratory. Dacher Keltner is a Professor of Psychology at U-C Berkeley and is the director of the Greater Good Science Center. He's written Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life.

Listen to the MP3 of this show here

"Positive psychology", a multi-billion dollar behemoth of an industry powered by antidepressants and other psychotropic drugs, retreats, therapy, self-help books and seminars sprung up about 30 years ago and has convinced us that we are supposed to be happy just about all of the time, and if we are not there is something wrong with us.  Actually, it turns out, those that appear happy all of the time could be the delusional ones.  I have always maintained that if you are happy all of the time you are blind and numb to the hardships of the world, emotionally bereft perhaps, so I felt a bit vindicated when I heard the show.

I was just entering the Cobbs Creek Parkway bike path where the City is inlaying stamped non-slip concrete at the entrances to the path so the usual transition from the street was surrounded by a ditch that even I could not jump on my bike.  I had to continue on the road for an extra twenty feet which meant riding in front of the cut-through that traffic coming along the actual Cobb's Creek Parkway used to turn onto the road on which I was riding.  Since I was part of the green light traffic I had the right of way.  As I glided in front of a stopped vehicle that was turning onto the street where I was riding; my bike halfway across the white sedan waiting there, I hear that telltale revving of the engine.

Holy shit!  It did not see me, the car was pulling out!  In a split second I would be toast, I mean I was two feet from its front bumper.

I realized that the driver must be looking back toward the intersection waiting for the traffic to stop, not in front of her car, where I was, and in a moment I was going to be seriously injured or killed.  I did the only thing I could do, I turned my legs as fast as I could to propel the bike forward to clear as much as I could and braced for the impact, hoping I could get away with the car only smashing into the back of my wheel, although that was unlikely.

Suddenly she slammed on her brakes.   I was saved.  Crisis averted, just like that.

I stopped at the far edge of the car, adrenaline coursing through my veins as sharply as when they put   Atropine in my IV during one of my infamous vagal episodes.

"Did you fucking look?" I yelled in a flash of anger.  Then I saw her face, it was a young atractive black woman, neatly appointed in a white dress.  She was shocked, and muttered something like she was sorry, but I could not hear her clearly because I was still catching my breath, or trying to anyway, and Dan Gottlieb's voice was yammering on in the background about how we should all be "living in the moment" and illustrating this by reciting a line of a Rilke poem.

Then I saw the two kids in the back carseats.  They were young, and I had just thrown out the f-bomb, which I felt was coarse, and set a very poor example.  I put out my hands towards them, breathing hard, my pacemaker pulsing my heart so forcefully that my diaphragm was pounding like a base drum until it made me cough, and said weakly, "I'm sorry for the language" to the lady, gesturing towards her children.  I felt as if I could not speak for a moment, rare for me, trust me on this one.  "I'm sorry to say that in front of them..."  I could not really think of an excuse, except the blunt truth, so I added, "but you almost killed me." I could barely get the words out.  It just did not seem to matter at this point, since I was clearly alive and unscathed.  The boys stared at me blankly, as if they were watching a cartoon of a very white lady with red braids on a pink bike panting heavily and mumbling something unintelligible to their mother.

Mom had a totally shocked look on her face.  It was as if she did not slam on the brakes herself, and thus she did not understand what had stopped her car from hitting me.  She murmured, "that's ok," eyes wide and doe-like. This was a cartoon, I thought.  Did one of those kids in the backseat yell at his mother to stop the car?  It seemed unlikely, they seemed too young to be cognizant of much going on outside of the windows.

"Please be careful driving home,"  I said, "and you have a good evening." And with that I picked up my bike and carried it across the ditch and back onto the path, away from rush hour cars for a few miles anyway while I traveled up the Cobbs Creek bikeway towards Fairmount Park.

Later that evening I was lying in bed with dogs and wondering how that car had stopped.  There was the telltale sound of a Toyota's accelerator being pressed upon, and a half second later the car braking so quickly there was a short squeal like sneakers on a basketball court and the car, which had lurched forward until it was practically brushing my thigh, rocked backwards and then forwards again in response to that unexpected application of rotor to steel.  A schizophrenic command, first accelerate, then stop, almost too fast to be executed by the same foot.  Perhaps I have a guardian angel after all, and he decided that I was needed here a bit longer.

As I lay in bed stroking Chloe's ears, I wondered what would have happened to my girls if I had never come home.  I thought of how difficult it is for children to lose a parent to say, war or violence or even divorce.  But at least children could be told what had happened, if not right away, then at the time when they can understand.   Madison and Chloe would have been shipped off to God-Knows-Where, perhaps even separated, when they had been together since conception and cannot even stand to be in separate rooms.   No one would be able to explain to them that I had been killed in a freak accident, that I had not abandoned them.

That always struck me as so tragic about animals, that their capacity for understanding complexities like this is so limited. It is why when I had to put Gryphon down last summer I brought home his body from The Penn Veterinary clinic and laid it on the floor for Madison and Chloe to see one last time.  I wanted them to understand that their old friend had passed peacefully.  When I did this Madison and Chloe put their heads down in their paws in an expression of grief I will never forget.  But at least they understood that I did not just take Gryphon, who had collapsed suddenly that morning, away somewhere never to bring him back.  How could they ever trust me again?  Yes, they thought it was a little odd at Penn, but I did not care.  I'm pretty used to it by now.


Happiness, as it turns out, is not necessarily a state for a privileged few who have learned how to tap into it, but rather a fleeting expression of joy that often needs some sort of prompting to appear regularly.  Once you become well-versed in accepting these cues, it becomes a habit, the habit of seeing that glass as half-full, as the old saying goes, and in training oneself to live in the moment.  Some are better than others at recognizing these cues.  Growing up as a type-A gifted child of strict Catholic parents, I learned very poor skills in this department.  With my perfectionist tendencies, my natural state was that the glass is never full, and self-criticism and discontent was the rule.  It has been tough shedding this relentless drive to never be content with my performance and my station in life.

Raising dogs has really helped me with this.  That, and my outdoor lifestyle that exposes me to our natural ecosystem as much as possible.  For me, exposure to mother nature seems to be the most reliable harbinger of joy, and I include wild animals as well as our domesticated brethren among the label of Nature.  Madison and Chloe may not be able to understand complex concepts,  but really that is why their simple lives are full of joy, unfettered as they are by the complications that arise from our over-thinking and over-striving.  It was a triumph of Evolutionary processes that enabled us to rise above the baser animal needs of eating, sleeping, eliminating, and procreating so that we can live our meaningful lives perhaps, but the weight of that meaning is an Albatross hanging around our necks unless we are able to cope with the stress that comes along with this all this significance, this quest toward enlightenment.  Without children to stamp a legacy onto my paltry existence, it seems as if every day for me lately is a lesson in learning how better to adapt to the stress of searching for a raison d'etre.  I never wanted children to be that reason for me, whether I decide to have them or not.

my garden is my sanctuary
If hiking with my dogs in the Wissahickon park or mountain biking in the Blue Mountains of Pennsylvania can bring me happiness, bike commuting in an urban landscape often is a great cause for disgust, sadness, anger and fear.  I roll through garbage and glass-strewn streets (4 flat tires in the past 2 weeks) in poorer sections of the city on my way to Lester, and I am routinely ignored, cut off, and shouted at that I should be riding on the sidewalk and not in the road.

But then there are the times like last Friday when I get another chance and perhaps because of a modicum of self-restraint, I am able to shape another's behavior in the future by making them more aware that cyclists are out there on the road too.  An aggressive reaction in these situations is generally futile and just heaps more adrenal stress on my already taxed glands.  I don't know, wishful thinking perhaps that I could affect a stranger's future behavior by keeping my anger in check, but if happiness is a construct, then whatever illusions I use to spend more time under its short-lived spell are fair game I say.

1 comment:

Tim said...

At some point does a perfectionist become an extremist? You increase your risk of losing your chosen lifestyle, the freedom and mobility you love, and all the future life assuring moments walking in the woods with your dogs, by continuing to ride your bicycle to work. Yeah, you could crash into a crippling or fatal car accident on the way to anywhere, which would be a cruel irony. But crunch those honest numbers and if the chances are greater on the bike, then do yourself a favor and drive to your job in that luxury car you enjoy. Small sacrifice in order to help ensure the use of your legs, and even keep you alive. There are safer places to ride. Why risk so much, perhaps everything, unnecessarily?

You're not freeing political prisoners or decreasing the suffering of countless others by biking. You already reduce your "carbon footprint" in other ways. To the people who care about you, it just seems reckless. One of these days, some careless driver will hit you again. It's just the odds.