Defending Happiness

Do you like this story?

Post written by Amy Shea.

If you search Amazon for “books about happiness” you come up with 28,047 entries.

My brain goes places with that statistic. First, I feel relieved that I didn’t know that number before I wrote a book about the subject. And, second, I realize I would have written it anyway. Not because it would have been a double-dare-you, which holds a certain attraction, but because I didn’t know I was writing a book that had happiness at its core–not until I was finished.

Philosophers, from the spiritual to the secular, have addressed the idea of happiness throughout recorded time–thus the number quoted above. Yet both ancient and contemporary explanations leave many puzzled, with a feeling they are hearing something important but not sure what to do. That’s one of the most serious limitations of what we have come to label “self-help.” It’s not that there aren’t tremendously useful ideas being shared. It’s that humans actually best integrate ideas a whole other way.

And that way is through story.

Robert McKee, the renowned script-writing guru and author of “Story: Substance, Structure, Style and The Principles of Screenwriting,” calls stories “equipment for living.” This is indeed so, and the reason why we are changed by the power of film and literature, far more so than with theory. “Show, don’t tell,” the saying goes to writers who offer explanations instead of narrative. Believing that advice to be sound, I will take it here. I will tell you a story about happiness.

At five years old, I arrived at the New York City housing project where I was to spend the next eleven years of my life, straight from a previous engagement at a rat-infested building in Brooklyn that was facing the wrecking ball. At that time, there were five of us kids. Another two were to come along, and two lost on the way to becoming themselves and joining us in our long corridor apartment. But I didn’t know all that then as I stared into the arch of our wide new water faucet, seeing my grin stretched wide in my reflection. It was made of something called “chrome” I was told–a word I whispered to myself, feeling the roundness of the “om” sound as I repeated it like a sacred mantra that contained impossibly large ideas of things like renewal and possibility.

All the families were just moving in back then, and like a lot of experiments where people are thrown together for their own good, there is some resistance, and some in-fighting. Hierarchies develop, and if you miss the cues early on because you’re busy staring into faucets, well, you can imagine. You find things have been sorted out, and you quickly abandon the idea of figuring out what happened and devote yourself to survival. Think of “Lord of the Flies,” but hunting humans instead of pigs.

Though I didn’t understand what I was doing when I retreated into stories to avoid the real and present dangers, I look back now and feel a rush of gratitude for whatever moved me to grow my inner world, when I had little control of my outer one.  Stories taught me how to function–not just how to think. They showed me what people actually did, what choices they made when being happy was damn hard to do. Stores showed me the power of that choice, translated into action, what happiness actually looked like, in hundreds of different ways.

I published my first short story when I was thirteen. I got paid $50, and for a while I sat and stared at the check, the first ever with my name on it. I never thought of saving it. I used it to buy a coat, something to keep me warm in winter.

And, it still does.

Amy Shea is the author of a book of short stories, “Defending Happiness and other acts of bravery.” 

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