I’m in a very love/hate relationship with Instagram. I like looking back and seeing the fun things I have done recently, and I like keeping up with my friends. But it also makes me desperately insecure at times. I could never look as put together as all the people I follow seem to look — effortlessly — every single day.
My life doesn’t look like that, and it never will. I’m all effort.
And I know no one’s life is as perfect as it looks from the outside, but telling myself that must be true isn’t the same as accepting it deep inside. It’s like being in a haunted house and knowing what you’re seeing is fake but still getting scared or startled. It’s one thing to know better, but it doesn’t override our human responses.
So after a few glasses of wine last Saturday and realizing that I was yet again unhappier than I was before I checked my Instagram feed I had to make the admission out loud, because that’s always step one to fixing something:
I put a lot of work into myself, into trying to be happy and mentally strong and into progressing on my own journey. But even for all of that I’m not happy all the time and my external life only reflects the extreme imperfections of my reality.
When I was growing up as a Christian, there was always the idea that good Christians are happy and joyful, no matter what they are going through. There are stories of martyrs that literally sang worship songs while they were being devoured by lions and tortured to death. And I always felt insecure because of it because I would have times of being happy but then I would also go through painful periods of growth in between those.
There’s a (terrible) Christian theologian who says, “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him.” And that always bugged me because I could never be satisfied. When one thing is great, I notice another than should be fixed. I’m always playing whack-a-mole, I’m never feeling completely comfortable or complacent.
It’s funny because even though I’m not in the religious community anymore, I’m still dealing with the same idea. If you are a deep person, if you are “healthy”, you are supposed to be happy all the time. The worst thing in the world could happen to them and they’d be unfazed. All you have to do is meditate and exercise and do yoga and eat organic food and Vitamin D and read Deepak Chopra and whatever else, and then you should just radiate joy because you’re a centered person.
I know people like this and I don’t believe they are being dishonest. I think they are genuinely joyful and centered and happy. But our brains just function differently.
I think some people can find something that works for them, and be happy with it for the rest of their lives. And then there are the analytical ones, the deconstructors. They will split hair after hair, there’s no “end”, no resting place on their journey no matter how long it lasts.
But we never really know which people belong to what group anymore, in part because of social media, and in part because we don’t know other people’s lives. So yes, your best friend might look like they have everything figured out in comparison to the trainwreck that you believe to be your life, but from someone else looking in, you might look like you’re figuring things out pretty well as you go.
To people like me, I think happiness is not the end goal. We don’t have an end goal. We have a journey we are on for as long as we are alive and happiness is something we experience in order to buoy us when we need something to keep us going. Happiness comes in ebbs and flows, and to measure ours against the happiness other people seem to have, or against the happiness we are supposed to find in any one given thing (religion, relationships, hell, even a piece of pizza) is to set yourself up for a lot of disappointment and failed expectations.
So no, my life isn’t happy and perfect right now. It won’t look that way because it won’t ever be that way. And I think I can learn to be okay with that. As poet David Budbill wrote criticizing happiness gurus in You False Masters of Serenity:
is what it means
to be alive and free.