I believe what is good or bad may not be absolute.
When I was a child, my grandmother would point out bad behaviors observed in others and tell me “don’t be like that.” I may not have known what I should be, but it was increasingly clear to me what not to be. I noticed that if she disagreed with someone she became quiet. Other people misread her silence as ignorance rather than disapproval. It was as though she became invisible in their presence. I learned to wait and see from her. It was a sort of vindication of her insight that people, sure enough, would hang when given enough rope of non-confrontation. But then again, one tends to get what one expects.
She immigrated in 1914 to America, propagandized to be magical, leaving her family and an 800 year old farmhouse in Yugoslavia, to wind up in a flat gray coal mining shanty town in Southern Illinois. Her father-in-law and husband succumbed to black lung and she was left alone with 8 children and a 3rd grade education. I felt sorry for my grandmother when I became old enough to understand her poverty and loneliness and how badly her children wanted to distance themselves from that reality as soon as they could. Despite the success of her children, she was left behind and vulnerable.
As much as I loved my grandmother, her belief that people would eventually disappoint her had bequeathed me an almost debilitating suspicion of others and estrangement from my family. I had no respect for status or title. Social grace was just another game of manipulation to be avoided, like faking a smile when you actually hated a person. For all my good grades, honesty and high principles, none of this served me. I lacked balance, had a failed marriage and lost one good opportunity after another. I had learned to see the world through her depression. I learned to expect unfairness and victimization.
I was 33 and very ill before I confronted that part of my psyche brooding about how terrible the world was, and discovered instead that happiness is also a habit, a different set of beliefs and expectations. Rather than being a silly inconsequential waste of time, happiness carried with it everything from joy turning a mundane task into a source of enlightenment, to the power to heal cancer, my own.
Happiness is a magnet for good the way despair is a magnet for sad. We need perspective and balance. If it hadn’t been for cancer, I would have never learned happiness is a choice, and I wouldn’t have met the wonderful man I’ve been married to for 29 years. It gave me a second chance choosing to live. I would not have known how lucky my grandmother was to get through adversity despite her trials. She died happy at the age of 97 never knowing the war razed that 800-year-old farmhouse to the ground and scattered her relatives there to the wind.
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