A few months back, I was at the chocolate shop in the mall where I once worked the worst job I have ever had in my life. As I browsed around, I was suddenly seized by the memory of all those crummy work days – days of irate customers, malfunctioning technology, and unreasonable bosses – when I and my coworkers had been through so much shit that there was only one thing to do: run down and buy everybody chocolate!
Is there a word for the opposite of nostalgia? Whatever it is, it’s what I felt as I stood in that chocolate shop. Not a memory of the past coupled with sorrow and longing to return to it. But a memory of the past coupled with relief and gratitude that it was over!
It’s also one of the defining emotions of my adult life.
For me, the past is not some happy idyllic place I long to return to. On the contrary, every chapter of my life has been better than the one before it. As a child, I had no friends, and I endured constant loneliness and emotional bullying. In high school, I did have friends, but I suffered a lot of heartache and confusion due to wanting more out of those relationships than they were able to give me. In my twenties, I began to feel more secure in myself, but I also lived in a transitory state, spending most of the decade in other cities and even countries. Since coming back to Canada, things have improved steadily. In “Happy Endings”, I wrote about how well my life was going, and things have only gotten better in the year since. In that post, I mentioned that I was still looking for a decent job and my own place. I now work full time at a job I don’t hate and rent a house with friends. It’s not that I don’t have fond memories of the past, or that there aren’t places and experiences I wish I could revisit. But, taken as a whole, my life today is happier than it’s ever been.
Blessings sometimes take unexpected forms. The life I have now is not the kind I imagined for myself growing up. I don’t have a spouse, children, or even a romantic partner. My job is low-wage and totally unrelated to my university degrees. I don’t own a house, a car, or anything of value. I’ve never known the giddy joy of falling in love with someone or the blissful contentment of knowing we’ll always be together.
And yet, despite its superficial failings, my current life is, in many ways, a dream come true. I live in a nice house – even if it’s not mine. I share my life with people I care about – even if we’re not connected by romantic or familial bonds. I do work (this blog) that I find fulfilling – even if I don’t get paid for it. And the bouts of depression that were, for so long, a routine part of my life have all but disappeared. It might be too extreme to say that I feel happy all the time. But, as someone who’s experienced a lot of unhappiness, I’m keenly aware of how much less miserable I am.
Which brings me to the last and most truly unexpected blessing of all: unhappiness itself. This one certainly didn’t seem like a blessing at the time. And yet, if I hadn’t experienced so much of it, I might have much less appreciation for the happiness I now enjoy. I’m not saying that having a miserable childhood did me nothing but good; it left me with numerous scars, including a knee-jerk distrust of other people, social awkwardness, fear of abandonment, and a general emotional numbness. But there is nothing like having no friends to make you value the friends you have. There is nothing like losing people to make you appreciate the ones who stick around. There is nothing like being hated to make you treasure those who love you. And there is nothing like misery to help you recognise unremarkable workaday happiness.
What about the future? I prefer not to think about it. I’d like to think that in my youth I “spent” my lifetime’s allotment of unhappiness, or that it was a “test” from God, and that, having gotten through it, I can now look forward to nothing but good times. But I don’t believe in a God who deals in earthly rewards and punishments, or who promises any amount of earthly happiness. The truth is, I’ve already known more happiness than many people get in an entire lifetime. I won’t be so naïve as to expect more. But I also won’t be so perverse as to darken my current happiness by anticipating its eventual end. If life, as Thomas Hardy once wrote, is “a general drama of pain” in which happiness is “but the occasional episode”, then I’ll enjoy this episode of happiness while it lasts. I’ve known too much of the alternative.