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Originally published in Sharp Heels

Thoughts and Motivation on Regaining – and Keeping – Them After Misfortune  

“I wish I were happy.” We’ve all been there. We look back on our childhood memories, or those of an old boyfriend from ten years ago, stare at old photographs fondly, and dote on what we mistily-eyed regard as “better” times, thinking, “I was happy then…why can’t I be that way now?”

I still miss old times; after all, don’t we all come across childhood photos, and wish that things could be as simple as a fourth-grade talent show or a Polaroid snapshot of a family dinner? I still go through family albums occasionally, captivated by that innocent childlike “happiness” beaming from every smiling red-eyed kid in the pictures.

But what exactly is happiness?  Does it come and go, but still feel the same way in your heart every single time? Or does it grow, evolve and mold into different forms at each stage of your life?  Can you ever get it back once you lose it?


The Seduction of Retrospect

You may be able to get it back, but it may also be a mistake to try to magically, automatically re-generate it. It’s strange what I feel as I go through old photos: a  consuming urge to piece together a joyful day again, to replay those moments. and recapture what made it so effortlessly special. But I don’t think there is such a thing as finding “indirect happiness,” or happiness-by-proxy, so to speak, even if  I find myself wanting to sprint back in time and live these great moments again, knowing what I know now.

However, the remarkable (and frustrating) thing is that what made me so happy then was the fact that I wasn’t even aware of my happiness, or how the bliss satisfied me.  I was just being, without any need for recognition or affirmation. And I can’t even recall a specific thought from any of these moments that the photographs so perfectly captured.

So here’s my thought: true, glowing happiness may only be appreciated in retrospect, which is the way it should be.

Finding My New Happiness – and Re-Thinking Luck

That said, there are variations to happiness.  After a terrible health crisis for me, and coming out of a coma in 2005, I felt like a newborn child rediscovering the world once again.  I can remember seeing the sunset for the very first time, and being first able to crane my neck towards the narrow glazed-over ICU window. I took a breath, and felt those spring rays seep into my lungs, filling me with new life. And as I regained my health, I discovered that finding physical stability was only half of job, while regaining my soul took more effort, care and time.

While I was trying to do exactly that, and recovering, I perused the old photos mentioned above, envying more carefree times, and feeling sorry for myself and my sudden unlucky streak.  Then I would hear how I was so “lucky” to be alive, and would try to appreciate that fully…yet somehow I still hated the luck I had ended up with.

And many people besides me have experienced their own version of bad luck, even on a more mundane, daily basis. Here’s how it usually works: you accidentally park in a towing zone. You miss the last train home by a split-second. The elevator in the apartment building is broken – and you’re carrying a week’s worth of groceries. Your college friends seem to have picture-perfect lives on Instagram, and you still feel like you haven’t found your “true calling” yet. Whether it’s an incidental hiccup in life or a sudden, dramatic hit, how many times have we asked ourselves, why me?”

In other words, we think of the concept of unfairness — how if bad luck happens to you, it’s just not fair.  “Of all the people in the world, I had to get this rotten luck?” However, if something  miraculous happens in your life out of the blue, landing in your lap with bells and whistles, that’s considered great luck; we never stop to think about whether it was deserved or not.

So life only feels truly unfair when you’ve been jolted with bad luck time after time, seemingly with no release; i.e. just when things can’t seem to get any worse, they do.  And it’s difficult to feel happy when you feel you’ve been dealt an unfair blow.  So how can we find happiness, when the “lucky things” seem to happen to everyone else?

How to Love the Luck You’ve Got

Here’s a start: before I get led too far down that “why me?” path, I stop myself.  It is a daily practice, and an ever-evolving one, but slowly I am learning to love the life I have.

As someone who has never enjoyed playing the “victim” role, being a hospital patient for years made me antsy with frustration and restlessness. But I’ve never been comfortable pitying myself, and have tried to stay determined to find the blessings in what has happened to me. So once I shifted my perspective, I found gratitude, and with gratitude came acceptance. With acceptance came peace, and with peace, came…happiness. 

It was a process: instead of focusing on what I didn’t have, I started to focus on what filled my life in the present. With nearly thirty surgeries, I had lost out on many things, but because of this deviation from my “planned-out” life, I had the amazing opportunity to meet so many new people who have filled my life with incredible love. I’ve been forced to try new things, and start new ventures, and have discovered worlds that I wouldn’t have known about had I continued on my previously planned, set-out path.

Then, finding the urge to actually diagram this discovery, I got out a pen and started to map out the past ten years on a newspaper lying on the table. It started with a dot: my first emergency surgery, April 25th 2005. The dot turned into a shaky line following a tumultuous path, as I remembered doctors fighting to save my life.

But then…the wobbly line gradually branched into different directions, as I recalled people I met, and experiences that had happened as a result of my life’s detour. My line grew thicker and bolder as I pressed my pen harder onto the newspaper, realizing the strength I had acquired, the wisdom I had gained, and the maturity I grew into because of those very experiences I had considered bad luck. 

Suddenly, this line turned into a splatter all across the newspaper, as I saw one “unlucky” event unfolding into millions of tiny little branches – people I had met, places I had been, things I had done, lessons I had learned, and feelings I had experienced. All because of one initial breaking point that had separated the life I had “planned” from the life that had followed. 

“Bad Luck” – A Friend in Disguise?

I stepped away and looked back at the newspaper – now a mess with frantic scribbles, lines and arrows, and realized that in the past ten years, one event had snowballed into a whole series of experiences that have made me who I am today. And then it all became clear to me: looking back on the “unlucky” events in my life, I still wouldn’t have it any other way.

And it’s not because I’m “happy” with everything that has taken place. But those events have created the person I am today. If I hadn’t gone through A, B and C, maybe I wouldn’t have all of these scars, but would I still have met the amazing people who have come into my life?  Would I still have accomplished so much, learned what I have, and be where I am today?  No.

I realized then that “bad luck” has put the color into my life, the crazy new directions, and the splattering lines on the newspaper of my life, connecting out into newfound directions. And quite luckily, it’s made me the woman I am today, about to be married, and with newfound skills.

So when you’ve missed that last train home, stay tuned into what you might find.  Your next life-enhancing opportunity might just be a cab ride or broken elevator away…

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