When I was younger, I used to think that happiness was something that you achieved.
Like a destination on a map, you kept driving and soon enough, after some pit stops to refuel, some meal breaks, maybe one or two breakdowns along the way, eventually on that endless highway of black top, trees whizzing by and nothing but mile markers (and iHOP-wannabe rest stops), your exit would come.
So it just seemed natural that if I kept going and kept my head down that one day I would enter the city limits of happiness.
I was a child of divorce raised by parents who were both brilliant and charismatic, but whose psyches were severely damaged and were ruled by anger and fears, the by-product of terrible childhoods not acknowledged or dealt with. This made our home one that swung on some mythical pendulum between silent fury and indifference. My parents were nothing if not excellent mask wearers, no matter what happened, they just swallowed their feelings, put on that glamour and charisma and we all pretended that everything was great.
I don’t want to make it sound like I had a terrible childhood, because I didn’t. There were good times with my parents. I can remember many memories of holding my dad’s hand or having his protective arm around me and my mom and I cooked together and she bandaged my scraped knees. We spent evenings playing board games and laughing at the likes of All in the Family, Carol Burnett and Benny Hill. My parents also were, for their failings, smart enough to surround themselves and us with people who were, for lack of a better word, more whole. My paternal grandparents, my mother’s aunt, uncle and cousins, friends of my parents showed me that that there was good beyond my parents’ particular brand of sorrow.
So, I grew up and waited for happiness to arrive.
It didn’t. I dropped out of university to find myself, figuring if I did then I would be happy. Then 3 years later I went back to university figuring if I finished what I started, I would be happy. Then, I did a Masters, figuring that if I realized my full potential I would be happy.
After I finished my Masters, I decided to make aliyah. I decided to fulfill that lifelong dream, the one talked about at Young Judea summer camps and BBYO weekends and the pull I felt so strongly every time I visited Israel just told me that Israel was home.
Making aliyah didn’t make me happy either.
Actually at first it made me miserable, because you know, it’s Israel and it’s aliyah. Israelis cut in line. It takes a month to figure out how to pay your arnona. The Hebrew that sounded cool in songs and every time a gorgeous Israeli soldier spoke it, suddenly sounded foreign and made me feel inadequate most of the time (except of course when I whined about it to other anglos).
As if that wasn’t bad enough, shortly after I arrived in Israel, I had a horrible fight with my dad, one that was a long time in coming and bound up in our history together, his damaged psyche and my bad behavior.
A week after coming to Israel, he cut me off both emotionally and financially.
I was so ashamed for what I had done to contribute to the situation that I stopped talking to the rest of my family. I was alone. No one was cheering me on from the sidelines or even begging me to come home. I had no home to return to.
I was alone and broke in a strange country.
It was there, in my first apartment, far away from my upper middle class comfortable life in America. There, in Tel Aviv, in a crappy, dusty apartment on the 6th floor of a building where half the time the elevator didn’t work, sleeping on a bed with broken springs, hearing the ceaseless noise and smelling bus exhaust fumes from Derekh Namir 24-7, I figured it out.
I could just be happy. Right there, right then.
I didn’t have to be the failure who disappointed her family time and again. I could be the brave girl, who went all alone to Israel, who faced the hardships of immigration and the sorrow of a broken relationship with her family by standing up on her own two feet for the very first time in her life. I could be the woman that learned from her mistakes and followed her own heart, and jagged piece by jagged piece made a life for herself.
Happiness isn’t a destination, it’s a choice.
Life is a series of triumphs and disappointments. No one can avoid both in life. Not love, not material comfort, not success can stop those things. Some people are defeated by life’s heartbreaks and others are exalted by them.
I stopped waiting to be happy. I just chose it and flipped the switch.
I had nothing, but I got everything.
It really was just that simple.