You Do Not Have To Be Merry

You Do Not Have To Be Merry December 7, 2016


I had a friend– a wonderful, compassionate, funny and creative friend, a great gal in every way. I’ll call her Patty. I loved Patty. We lived in different parts of the country, so we usually talked online. And goofing off with Patty and my other online friends was the best part of my day. Patty always managed to make me smile.

But patty herself wasn’t happy.

Patty suffered from anxiety and depression, the worst cases of anxiety and depression you can imagine.  She was completely disabled by them most of the time. She’d tried every pill. She’d been to therapist after therapist. No one could help her very much. There was nothing I could do to help Patty, except to be a friend to her and to tell her how much I loved her, and try to listen and empathize as best I could.

I know that Patty’s suffering was a real, serious mental condition and not just ordinary sadness or seasonal blahs. But I saw her struggling again and again with one pattern of thought that really made her suffering worse. It was a pattern that, as far as I could tell, her therapists encouraged instead of helping her change. And I think it makes ordinary suffering worse too, and I think it’s an especially poisonous way of thinking for this time of year.

Patty thought that she was supposed to be happy.

She thought that she was wrong, if she wasn’t happy. She thought she would disappoint people if she wasn’t happy. And she thought that it was her responsibility to make herself feel superficially pleasant, in this or that moment. I saw her struggle with this day after day. She’d mention that she’d been in pain and nervous in the early morning, but didn’t want to wake anyone to talk to for fear of disappointing them. She felt like a failure when she didn’t feel happy on holidays, or when her birthday brought fear and renewed depression instead of fun.

Patty spent the longest time strategizing ways to make herself feel happy. Her therapists encouraged her and gave her tips on how to do it. I saw her writing down to-do lists: “I felt happy playing my trumpet this afternoon. I will play my trumpet for at least fifteen minutes a day. I will turn on the radio and dance to it if I feel sad.” She had a drawer full of candy in reserve to snack on in case she felt sad. She had organized her life into a series of stepping stones, from one pleasant feeling to another, to try to make herself happy. And since Patty was a caring and empathetic person instead of a selfish one, none of this worked. It made her more miserable. And then she felt like a failure for being miserable, and on it went.

It seems to me that that way of thinking will make everyone miserable.

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