“It is the first symptom of adulthood — I cannot be God.”
– John Steinbeck
A year ago, a college friend and I had dinner at my favorite Mexican restaurant. Though our conversations were mostly light-hearted, we eventually got to personal topics that we had never talked about before. He mentioned that I had changed.
Two years prior, I had gone through a string of losses, each more devastating than the other — all within the same year. I was wrecked with grief about many different things, and in that year, I found myself at the lowest point of my life.
My friend told me, “I miss the old you. You used to be a lot more bubbly and annoying with your jokes. Now you’re just not the same. Sure, you do still joke around, but the rest of the time, I see you’ve gotten darker — like you’re just not happy.”
I didn’t know what to make of his words at the time, except to simply tell him, “Hey, nothing’s changed. I’m still the same person you knew before.”
I had thought about this conversation recently, and I brought it up with my therapist, Sophia. I told her that perhaps my friend was right, as I sometimes do feel that the tragic events I had gone through had changed me forever — that sometimes, I feel that I can never be as happy as I did before.
From talking it out with her, I realized that it’s not abnormal to feel this way. It’s an inevitable part of adulting.
“When we were younger, all we wanted was to feel good, to feel happy — but as we grow older we realize that that’s not possible all the time — and that it’s not possible to be happy in a certain way, or to be as happy as we were before — especially when we’ve gone through shit.”
The saying “It’s okay to not be okay” has become a cliché, but it’s true. You don’t have to be happy all the time. What’s more, it’s okay to feel sad, to still feel weighed down by your traumas at times — because we all know that they can have an impact on our day-to-day lives, even as time has passed.
Just because you’re not happy, it doesn’t mean that you have a lesser value.
As for my friend, perhaps he was just concerned, and didn’t want to see me being sad. Or perhaps, he was just displacing his own worldview that people should behave in a certain way if they were happy.
“Maturity,” as Sophia told me, “is when you realize that life is not just about feeling happy.”
Having said that, it’s worth looking into the values behind the emotional goals that you might have for yourself.
Three years ago when I was at my absolute wit’s end, I discovered a song by Jackson Browne, titled Running on Empty. In the song, Browne reflects on how years had passed by without him realizing, as he was too busy chasing one goal after another, without actually stopping to question why, or the values behind them.
It was as though he had been sleepwalking through life, echoing Shakespeare’s similar contemplation in A Midsummer Night’s Dream: “Are you sure that we are awake? It seems to me that yet we sleep, we dream.”
The song hit a nerve in me, as it is often only after going through a tragedy, or several of them, that we are forced to reflect on who we really are. In Browne’s case, he had written the song some time after he lost his wife to suicide, and had to raise his baby son as a single parent.
The more I grow older, the more the song makes sense to me. And I always find myself compelled to reflect on it every now and then.
Happiness is essentially an emotional goal — it’s a feeling or an emotion that you would like to achieve or have.
But as important as goals may be, the values behind them are much more important. As values are about how you can be, rather than what you can get, values keep you grounded in the present.
Unlike emotional goals, values are fully in your control. For instance, if a goal that you have is to be in a romantic relationship for you to feel happy, your value behind it could be that you want to be loving.
With that being said, being in a relationship isn’t always in your control, but your values are. You can choose to be loving in other ways, like being loving to underprivileged people by volunteering in community service work, being loving to family and friends, or even by being loving through your work by sharing your art.
So, rather than being fixated on emotional goals that you once had, or that you have not gotten yet, focusing on the here and now is much more sustainable. Not to mention, it’s also more fulfilling and meaningful — and from that, a byproduct of it is that it makes you happy.
By moving away from emotional goals, and moving towards your values, you would no longer be in a state of chasing, but in a state of being.
Life is much more than feeling happy. Life also has to do with knowing what your values actually are and living by them — which unfortunately, not many of us allow ourselves the time to pause and reflect on.
But this is the task of adulthood. You don’t have to wait until you’re in your golden years to think about these things. For inspiration, Jackson Browne was only 29 years old when he wrote Running on Empty. Now is the best time to decide who you want to be for the rest of your life. Now is the best time to draw up your own blueprint for a life well-lived.
To quote from the song,
“If it takes all night, that’ll be all right
If I can get you to smile before I leave.”