My Turn To Embrace Unhappiness

Frequently I urge students in my classes to build their happiness brain and heart muscles now, not only to enjoy the moment but also to prepare for the inevitable bad times. It's part of life, I say aloud. Meanwhile, internally, I am likely engaged in a mini-argument that goes something like this: "You know, this means you, too." "No, no, not me! "Yes, you too, you know it's true." "Oh, okay, but not for a long time, and nothing really bad, right?"

Yesterday, the "you, too" side won the argument. Bad times arrived.

All week, I lived with low-grade anxiety, starting with a phone call to the optometrist on Monday morning to report some troubling eye symptoms. The receptionist said, you need to come in right away. Not a good sign. After that exam, the optometrist office made sure I got an immediate appointment with one of only four retina specialists in the entire state of Vermont. More foreboding. Still, I had hopes for life as usual until the moment Doctor Kim's tone of voice suddenly changed as he directed urgent comments to his assistant -- in medical shorthand I couldn't understand. "What does that mean?" I asked. "I'll explain it all," the doctor said. "First we need pictures."

That meant an agonizing hour in the waiting room where, surrealistically, the television was blaring a Donald Trump speech. Finally, it was my turn with the camera specialist, who asked me what I do for a living. I stammered, "I'm a happiness teacher," thinking, "please, please don't talk to me about happiness because now all I am is a terrified person." Fortunately, he instead reminisced about a recent trip to Costa Rica.

Ironically, when I left the dark camera room for the sunlit hall on my way back to the examination room, everything was startlingly rose-colored, thanks to a dye that had been injected in my hand to get better eye pictures. The illusion was brief, beautiful, and definitely not metaphorical.

Finally, the diagnosis: vitreous hemorrhage in my left eye, bleeding that has already caused permanent damage to my eyesight and would blind me completely in that eye -- probably within months, the doctor said -- if left untreated. Fortunately, there is a treatment, a drug to be injected directly into my eye. The doctor assures me, this will hurt. I need to have the treatment a minimum of three times, probably six times, maybe more, starting right away. Since it was Friday afternoon, and these injections are a two-day affair, the first treatment is scheduled for Monday afternoon.

Happy weekend.

But I'm not feeling sorry for myself. Serious suffering visits each of us multiple times throughout our lives. Perhaps literally millions of people are suffering much worse physical and emotional pain than I am at this very minute. Rather, I am pondering just how a happiness professional should handle this situation. I believe the answer lies in embracing unhappiness.

My first priority was crying. I beat back the tears until I left the doctor's office. I don't know why. I definitely wanted to cry. My left eye is irreversibly damaged. I almost lost my vision completely in that eye. That is worth grieving over. That is worth many tears.

Since leaving that office, though, I've cried on and off quite a bit, though I suspect I'll be more or less finished crying soon. From both personal experience and research on happiness and resiliency, I know I'll bounce back, presumably with a keener appreciation of my eyesight. For now, it's important to face this reality, not sugar coat it, logistically or emotionally. A full and rich life demands feeling the pain, too. Already, I've had loved ones tell me to be positive and to focus on the gratitude -- and, dear hearts, if you're reading this, I love you and thank you for your kindness -- but that is not what I need right now.

Should I be optimistic? I guess I am, in that I didn't think twice about whether to have the treatments or not. Definitely, any optimism I have is grounded in reality: this will not be fun. It might not even work. It might happen in the other eye. But, together with my skilled doctor, I'll do my best to work toward a positive outcome.

I've been thinking about the words of Admiral James Stockdale, the highest ranking naval officer to be held prisoner during the Vietnam War. He observed that the POWs most likely to survive that experience were those with reality-based optimism. Neither the prisoners who thought they would be released almost immediately nor the POWs who believed they would never be released survived as well. Stockdale said,

"You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end -- which you cannot afford to lose -- with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they may be."

So be it. Faith, yes. And, tell me the truth.

I've also been thinking about a cautionary note in the book Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth by father and son positive psychology team Ed Diener and Robert Biswas-Diener. Although happier people are in general less likely to have ill health, the Dieners warned, when it comes to surviving physical maladies, happier people can fare worse. Because their glasses are too rosy, perhaps? Or their optimism isn't reality-based?

So I don't want that "happy person" who is disconnected from her own health reality. That means not only doing what I need to do, but also feeling what I need to feel.

With the support of a few loved ones, I've given myself some hibernation time to grieve, for the human condition, bodies that break, and my own lost eyesight. Time to be afraid, and angry -- at the optometrist (fairly or not, I don't care right now), at myself for not seeing a specialist sooner, and at the world in general because no one ever told me that such a thing might happen to those of us near-sighted folks with large eyeballs. I will forgive everybody. Not yet, though.

Another aspect of my teaching feels a little too close to home right now: I always read Helen Keller's essay "Three Days to See" to my meditation classes because it does f illustrates so well the value of mindfulness. Keller wrote compellingly of all how we all might see so much better if we were faced with the loss of our eyesight.

Hopefully, I am not facing the loss of my eyesight. Still, on the ride home from the doctor, while my loving husband drove, I reflected on Helen Keller's words and tried to savor the picture postcard Vermont summer mountains and sunny blue skies.

I couldn't do it. I just needed to be sad.

In a few hours, I will have my first treatment. Maybe later this week, my cheery disposition will re-emerge. Maybe not. Either way is okay. Since I know unhappiness will not be here forever, I can let it take all the time it needs.