Happiness and Trauma

Yesterday I wrote about the part of us that is unconditionally happy. I didn’t write this (nor do I normally write) because I am deeply in touch with this part of myself. To the contrary, I write because I am so often not in touch with the unconditional happiness within me. Writing is a way for me to reorient myself towards that space. A way to tell myself and help me see and feel that wisdom is real, that it is alive within me, even if I so often feel lost, anxious and adrift.

Today was a day when the anxiety was particularly intense. I got triggered by something in an interaction with someone (doesn’t matter what or who exactly) and it created a sense of panic. Something like, “There it is. It’s happening again. I am going to be taken advantage of. I am going to lose out, while the person I am interacting with and others around me will get what they want. I need to protect myself. I need to fight for myself.” I hate feeling like this. I don’t actually end up “fighting for myself”. What happens instead is I freeze mentally. I get a panic attack which reverberates in the back of my mind all day. I don’t like being aggressive with people, nor do I like being submissive. I feel I have been submissive too much in my life, and I don’t want that anymore. And yet the alternative of being aggressive or fighting feels off putting, and perhaps just scary. Too much like things are out of control. I prefer control. And clarity. People getting along and taking care of each other.

I love to take care of others, as in think about their needs. It comes naturally to me. It always has. And yet I easily get upset because I feel others don’t think about my needs. Like I am being taken advantage of because of my kindness and goodness. Or maybe it is just because of my need for getting along. Others seem more ok to think about themselves without worrying about how it effects other people. I have never been able to do that. It always felt like a struggle to be selfish. Not that I am a saint. I mean rather that my default mindset is to begin with thinking, “what is the fair thing for everyone here?” My own selfishness – which is intense of course – never feels like the last word, or the first word, to me. The first word begins with a “we” and the last word ends with a “we”. This is not a virtue or wisdom. It is just my temperament or personality.

It’s one reason I love to discuss ideas and emotions – usually the mix of ideas and emotions. Engaging with a person or people as we navigate our collective “we”. Because for me the “I” – even my sense of my “I” – comes in the midst of a “we”, I am often feeling half empty or alienated, as if left to myself I am but a shell of myself. To understand myself, it feels like I have to understand a we that I am a part of. And so in interactions with people I long to find that we.

Yet often I have found that my hope for a we in this sense becomes dashed, as it seems like most people I interact with are happy to be simply “I”s who feel they are perfectly well defined without me. That they don’t look to me to better understand themselves and to be a better them the way I feel I look to them in order for me to be a better and more full me.

What it feels like is that I am doing the trust exercise with another person (you know the one where one person falls backwards and the other person catches them), only to have the other person turn around and walk away as I am falling. I fall down. Upset. Hurt. And I want to yell, “You should have been there. How could you walk away? You need to do X….” Yet all the other person seems to hear is not my desire for a common we but rather my trying to control them according to some magical, mysterious sense of how things “ought to be done.”

As I was saying, today I had another episode of this. It’s familiar to me. I have had it with colleagues. With family members. With friends. With my spouse. As I have seen this happen over and over again – me feeling somehow wronged by the others not listening to me enough and not reciprocating enough – I have come to see that what all these situations have in common is my own expectation and mode of being. Perhaps there is something in the way that the “I” and “we” concepts have been intertwined for me for so long that I keep having the same tension over and over again in different parts of my life.

As I was in the midst of this episode of anxiety and feeling out of control – almost like a panic attack – I thought of my post from yesterday. And I thought, “Yes, there is right now a part of me that is unconditionally happy. That part of me isn’t touched by this nausea I am feeling or sense of being trapped. Yes, there is that part of me. I can sense it. I can remember it. But I can’t really feel it.”

And I couldn’t feel it. The unconditional happiness felt like a medicine I had forgotten at home, and I couldn’t take it now that I am on the road, far from home.

I closed my eyes and tried to find a sliver of that unconditional happiness. But most everywhere I was feeling only the flames of the emotional unrest I was caught in. What I wanted was conditioned happiness – for the world to be a certain way, for other people to be different, for the we that I so long for to be palpable in my life so that I can rest assured within it, and can relax in the world that I belong in.

And then I had a thought, a flash of a memory, so dim that I could barely remember it, but full of reality. It was me playing cricket in the local park with my friends when I was 10 in India. I was set to bowl, and looked to my friends who were fielding and ready to catch the ball the batsman would hit. There was a we! A joint activity in which we were bound as one, in which I could hardly separate out myself from my friends, and themselves from me, bound together in our childhood in a way that is possible so easily in childhood.

As I thought of that Bharath, at ten years old, carefreely focused entirely on that game, I sensed how fragile that memory was. For in only a year or two I would never play cricket again. Never experience again that unthinking bond with other kids, and with a park and a land, and that street (oh that street where I grew up!), with our house at the other end of the street from the park.

A year or so later my father would have a heart attack. My parents would leave for America so that my father could get better medical care, and my brother and I stayed back for two months with other family members. Then after those two months, my brother and I boarded a plane to come to America. As my father was recovering from his surgery in New York, and he and my mom were trying to get jobs and get used to America, my brother and I went to live with other family members in Pittsburgh for four months. After that, we moved to New York, happily back with our parents again, settling into our new life.

But how much had changed in those six short months! The possibility of my father not surviving his heart attack or his surgery. A move from India to America. Not sure I ever really understood any of it at the time, at the age of 11. I moved in a daze. Just as I imagine my parents and my brother did in their own way. And every time I passed a park and say kids playing a funny game called baseball, which I didn’t understand and which I couldn’t play, I sensed the memory of the past that was now lost – the memory of the cricket game and the unreflective we that it provided.

Why did this memory come to me as I was searching today for my unconditional happiness within me?

I think because what lies between unconditional happiness and conditional happiness is trauma.

By “trauma” I don’t mean that my childhood experience of immigration was somehow particularly traumatic. In comparison to many others, it is pretty mild. It is a walk in the park compared to people dealing with memories from childhood of sexual abuse or starvation or loss of their parents or dealing with disabilities or not having loving parents and so on. Compared to all that, moving from India to America in a haze of concern for my father and our family is not all that bad.

But, for all that, it is part of my psyche. It is what I have to deal with. It is one of the things which convinced the young, child Bharath that happiness can be lost – that it is conditioned.

Children live in unconditional happiness without trying to. They do so mainly because they live mainly in the present. And also because they haven’t yet developed the memory of the loss, which ruptures the growing consciousness into the world as it was and the world as it is now, with the awareness that what was lost in the world as it was might never come back again.

As this awareness of loss starts to grow (for some probably as early as 2 or 3 – I was a late bloomer at 11!), they start to build their lives and sense of self from the happiness that they can construct. This is the beginning of conditioned happiness – also the beginning of what we call individuality or self. Personality is nothing other than the highly particular ways that children start to construct their conditional happiness. So much so that as the children become adults, these ways seem synonymous with who they are. I am joking of course that I didn’t start to do this until I was 11. What happened at 11 is just a particular intense series of experiences. But I started constructing my personality, like every one, well before then.

This construction of personality has a fatal limit. There is no guarantee that the conceptual and emotional infrastructure that was started to be built at 2 or 5 or 10 will do the job well when one is 18 or 35 or 60 or 90. In fact, as people grow what makes the conditionally happy itself starts to grow and change and evolve. And so it becomes ingrained in us that to be myself is to be conditionally happy – that is, to have the things that I want and to avoid the things I don’t want.

This sets the stage for adulthood. Millions of people basically in a sprint to be conditionally happy, vying with and against each other for the resources and recognition that enable conditional happiness. We can no more all be happy than all the animals in a jungle can be happy together. Even more: we can no more be happy than an addict can be continually happy. For that is what ultimately adulthood is – addiction to one’s conditional happiness. The excitement of getting what one wants, the sadness of losing it, the anxiety of withdrawal, the anger of being confronted, the high of hoping for a new day and a new possibility, and so on.

The anxiety I was feeling today was the screaming of the addict not getting his hit. Being confronted with the loss of the conditional happiness I want to take for granted – as what I am owed, what I deserve, what is supposed to be happen.

In the midst of that, of course the unconditional happiness feels far away. Because the me that craves the conditional happiness long ago gave up on unconditional happiness. He long ago accepted that he can never go back to that playground again and play cricket with this friends in the afternoon with their boyish sense of hope and that all things are possible.

In the face of my conditioned happiness not being met, it feels like adding insult to injury to suggest that I could be more than conditionally happy – that I could be unconditionally happy. Isn’t that like telling a starving person that though they lack food, they can have the fulfillment of having eaten in the finest restaurant! The mind wants to say: “No, that is a pipe dream! No, that kind of happiness is an illusion. Reserved at best for children. The most I can get is conditional happiness, and that is what matters!”

But perhaps there is a way to get to that unconditional happiness after all. If conditional happiness accepts the past traumas, and tries to build anew after the fall of those traumas, then unconditional happiness lies on the other side of those traumas. If we refuse to face up to the traumas, only conditional happiness seems possible. But if we face up to the traumas and relive them without fear, then we can tap back into the unconditional happiness.

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