The Brittleness of Happiness

This post started with my incredulity at how hard I was taking an overheating car. I’ve never been nonchalant about malfunctioning automobiles—I was once so upset about a broken radiator that I couldn’t even get myself to call a tow truck. The overheating, this time, was not a disaster. I was close to home. I added more coolant. Since then, the problem seems to have gone away (or at least not manifested during my spouse’s commute). Like a hypochondriac hitting WebMD, though, I trolled the internet for probable causes and priced solutions and worried for the umpteenth time how many more months we’ll get out of a 14-year old Dodge Neon.

Those are practical worries: Austin’s nearly impossible without a car. My wife and I are budgeting for a down payment on a house; that doesn’t leave much room for new car payments. My incredulity, though, was about how much this threw me off. It was a problem, yes. A grown-up problem. I happen to have solved many grown-up problems in my time as a grown-up. I fixed my washing machine…and barely batted an eye a week later when a hose came loose and I had gallons of water to get off the floor. Why was I so upset about a car? Was my happiness that fragile?

Sort of. I wrote a few weeks back that “my own personal demons don’t stay riled up about grad school like they used to. I’m working on keeping my eyes forward.” When I’ve hit lows the last few months, they’ve been valleys, not abysses. It’s harder for the little things to wake up the whole mess of I’ve-wasted-my-life-and-my-future-is-useless than it used to be. None of that means my happiness is complete, or that I’m comfortable, or that I don’t still hear Paul Westerberg keening “Unsatisfied” in the back of my head on a weekly basis. I don’t always get enough sleep, which exacerbates problems.

My happiness is more brittle than I’d prefer. You know what? That’s a non-problem. If it slides back toward depression, that is a problem. Not now, though. Grad school encourages us to make peace with being miserable, a kind of paradoxical masochistic Schadenfreude. The loneliness of the adjunct makes it worse. That doesn’t mean quitting the academy is a free pass to rainbows and unicorns. Mental gymnastics to sell ourselves on our own happiness aren’t any more worthwhile just because we’ve left the system that encourages them.

In, out, or in-between, academia inspires a weird self-absorption. At its best, this enables useful introspection. At its worst, well…one can find himself turning the question of intake fan vs. clogged radiator into something existential. It’s just a car, dude, not a referendum on your success as a human being. Perspective has to come back in one way or another. Having nonacademic friends helps. Having kids helps (sometimes—my seven-year-old has turned bedtime literally into a brawl lately).

Sometimes, perspective comes when life smacks you upside the head with something real. After a few days off, I am back at the middle school where I spent six weeks. Yesterday, I was there as one of four extra subs called in as reinforcements after the unexpected death of one of the school’s math teachers. The teacher was 29, in his first year of teaching, and had many layers of connection with the school. He’d been a student there. His mother taught history there for decades. He’d been part of both sixth and eighth grade classrooms this year. Staff and students were wrecked. It was my job to help fill in the gaps as teachers and students helped each other get through the day, whether that meant covering a classroom or escorting students to the crisis center in the library. After most of two months, I know these students. I know many of the teachers (although I knew the deceased only in passing). It hurt to see them suffer, to see one of my class clowns come into the library barely able to finish a sentence.

I ended the school day standing next to the makeshift memorial set up in the courtyard. Students added notes and cards to the ones already piled on it. (They avoided covering up the neck ties.) Many of them took pictures with their phones. One student, trailing the end-of-day exodus, sketched a sincere but embarrassed bow as she dashed to catch her bus.

When the building was clear, I signed out, got in the car, and drove home. When I got there, I didn’t quite collapse, but it was close. I was empty, drained by the day. I cried some. I made my kids give me hugs and explained what had happened to my son. He immediately wanted to make a card for the teacher’s family. I thought about what I could do, what it meant to be a teacher…what death meant to a 13-year-old. I thought about happiness and about grief and ephemerality. I was reminded that death is one of those things even poetry fails to touch.

Later that night, I discovered the kids had knocked our iPad to the floor and stepped on it, cracking the screen. It didn’t worry me.

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