When people ask me what book changed my life, the first one I think of is one that I don’t like to mention. It was a book called Happiness is a Choice. I read the book when I was eighteen and it did change my life. Until I read it I thought my emotions were my emotions and there wasn’t much I could do about it. I fought and pulled myself out of the darkness somewhat for a while. Then, the darkness returned and not only was I sad but I felt guilty for feeling sad. I felt not only sad, but like a failure because I wasn’t strong enough to choose happiness.
I don’t like to mention the book because I know now that it’s complicated and if someone who struggles with depression hears the title, without context, it could make them feel worse.
One of the best things the book did for me is open my eyes to possibilities and send me on a lifelong journey of trying to be a better person. I’ve read a lot of self-improvement books over the years and learned a lot of different ideas and things.
And I still get sad. Soul crushing, heart-rending, sad, because the truth about who we are and what we feel is so much more complicated than a simple choice. In fact, much of what we do, think is decided at a level far below what we are aware of. Our minds are amazingly efficient. At some point, something told it that this was the best way, that this is what we had to do to protect ourselves and programmed things deep within us to carry out programs it thought were in our best interest. These programs include sadness and behaviors that our conscious mind recognizes as self-destructive.
Other people, whose programs differ from our own, have a hard time understanding our behavior because it doesn’t seem rational sometimes, but to our subterranean mind it makes perfect sense.
Does this mean that happiness is not a choice? Not exactly. We can explore these dark subterranean caves and we can bring light. For a lot of us that may be a tiny flickering candle. You take your candle into the deep dark recesses of your mind and you stick in on the wall and you look around, then go back for another. If you’re lucky you might find a light switch. But then the electricity could go out.
“All of the darkness in the world cannot extinguish the light of a single candle.” Saint Francis of Assisi
So we take our little candles into the dark places and have a look around. Maybe we find some monsters and fight them back. Today we win, or hold our own. Next time it might be a little easier. Or harder.
Eventually we find our way back out of the cave. Sometimes it’s easy, like a snap of the fingers and the sun radiates down on us again, sometimes it’s a slow crawl.
Being sad sometimes is normal. I think we can all learn to carry our little spark. We can learn to sit in the cave without it overwhelming us, we can learn our own pathways out. We can find compassion with ourselves and ask for help when we seem to be able to do neither.
It’s okay to not be okay, and it’s okay to ask for help. Please ask for help. You can even ask me.