“There is a garden in every childhood, an enchanted place where colors are brighter, the air softer, and the morning more fragrant than ever again.”- Elizabeth Lawrence
How often have you heard someone remark off-handedly, “Oh, to be a kid again!”? After all, that’s when life was simple; obligations and commitments didn’t exist, and every moment of time was yours to spend as you desired. Every day was a gift to be opened and celebrated- an adventure in the making.
Right? Can I get an amen?
Well, yes. And no. Nostalgia is a funny thing, so let’s allow that our memories may be a little fuzzy here. With the challenges of adulthood, we often forget the trials of youth. We dismiss a child’s lack of power and influence in their own lives, what it means to have decisions made for you, and how life contrives to present circumstances and conflicts that would overwhelm even those with the benefit of perspective, knowledge, and experience. We romanticize the notion that childhood is a series of still moments of perfection.
Still, there is something immeasurably precious about childhood, most especially for those of us observing it in retrospect. There’s no standard of comparison as children, but as adults, we recognize that it’s a maddeningly transitory state of being- and one that forms the foundation for everything to come.
Think deeply about how the happiest parts of your childhood were created, because when things align as they should, childhood, free of responsibilities, is the purest, most open time to learn about joy. Knowing what delighted you as a child can serve as a foundation for the exploration of joy as an adult. Joy in experience, in life, and in self.
As a child, the world is quite literally at your feet. Running, jumping, playing and dreaming are of the highest priority, and exploration of all the world has to offer is a delight. There are so many new things to discover, be fascinated by, and learn to love.
This is the time we laugh ourselves silly over corny jokes, develop friendships that last a lifetime, and while away the hours with creativity. Moments spent in discovery- art, reading, imagination and play bring a sense of balance and contentment, although in youth, we may not recognize it as such.
This is where we set our big expectations for life. Ask any 5-year-old their plans for the future, and they’ll have very real expectations of becoming whatever role model they hold dear; a doctor, firefighter, educator or entertainer… All future roads hold to the same gold standard, and it can only be a life that’s filled with excitement and adventure.
As time goes on, we begin to adjust our expectations- most teens and young adults develop a more “practical” or “realistic” mindset. They’re still thinking ahead to the future, but in a different way; college, career, life path. It’s bittersweet to see this transition happen; the pride you take in your children’s growth is tempered by the realization that there’s now hesitation in their delights. They’ve become more conscious of expectations and social norms, and have started doing less dreaming and more planning. Bittersweet too, because you remember the same change in yourself.
As we enter our twenties, and then our thirties and forties, the clock moves ever faster. Our professional and personal lives are often all-consuming. Fifty and sixty-hour work weeks, the balance of maintaining a home and family, and a seemingly unending list of tasks don’t lend themselves to an excess of self-exploration or “me” time. It’s nearly impossible, in fact, to focus on your own thoughts and dreams when you’re eating a meal standing at the kitchen counter as you clean, staying up all night with a sick child, or laboring over a work proposal into the wee hours of the night. Some days it’s all any of us can do to just get out the door in a matching pair of shoes. Most people are just trying to make it through the day.
And that’s okay, because as they say, it’s a season. It’s not our whole lives. We’ll be able to prioritize ourselves down the road when things are calmer. It’ll happen eventually…sooner or later.
But it’s tricky, and if we’re not careful, this temporary “season” can become the entirety of our lives. We’re given only so many days on this earth, and none of us knows the count. Later can easily become too late. The days, weeks, and years can whirl away in a frenzy of activity that brings no real happiness or contentment to our hearts and souls- and then our time has gone, slipped away like strands of gossamer.
The happiness crisis often sets in when we get a concrete sense of this mortality. Maybe it’s at “midlife”, but it is often sooner than that, or later. Something may make you stop and catch your breath; it may be a certain birthday, a suddenly empty nest, or the passing of a loved one that serves as our wakeup call. And your heart hitches… where has the time gone?
Or, instead of a lightning moment, you recognize not a single event, but an imprecise sense of “wrongness”. We may simply awaken, at any age, with a sense of mental and spiritual malaise; an unshakeable feeling that a full life is lacking the very things that make it worth living; purpose, direction, and joy.
It goes to intuition- our hearts often know what our minds refuse to acknowledge, and it tells you what is working in your life, and what isn’t. It’s the voice that whines, or sometimes screams for your attention. “There is more!” But don’t be fooled- the more you’re craving can never be filled by things. It is simply your heart and soul searching for the equilibrium of content. Simple… and so difficult.
It seems to be a universal truth; across the board, people are looking for the magic formula for happiness. In fact, any web search of the term “happiness” will bring up literally hundreds of articles on how to be a happier, more successful you. They come with endless tips, plans, and checklists of things to do to increase your happiness quotient.
Are any of them effective? Well, sure. Scan those lists, and there is any number of mood-busting tricks that can turn around a difficult day. (The right music and some caffeine can go a long way toward that end, to be honest.) But too often, these tricks deal with the immediate, surface emotions that are affecting your happiness at that moment. Using them can be a great band-aid; a “putting out the fire” move that gives us a temporary boost. If, however, you find that you have a prevailing sense of discontent that seems to lurk just around the corner and wait for a quiet moment, it’s time to dig a little deeper toward the root of the problem and see what can be done to create a balance that affords a core happiness from which everything else can flow.
And here’s the rub: at the center is knowing yourself. To find a sustaining, all-embracing contentment, we must examine the circumstances of our lives, and be at once merciless and gentle with our critique. You’re still in there, kid, so get to work.