Divine Social Workers and the Secret of Happiness

I am a pretty happy person. Occasionally readers comment on this, in tones ranging from bafflement to envy to mild disgust. Mea culpa.

Part of this is simply my coping mechanisms, I must admit–if I blog something unpleasant, and I can make it funny, the funny story in my head edges out the real unpleasantness as the dominant memory. There’s a lot to be said for storytelling as therapy. Part of it’s just innate, I suppose–I am, under the layers of Squidward-like sarcasm, basically an optimist. My grandmother, who had every ailment known to man and a few, like vestigal gills,* that were right out of the ballpark, impressed on me two great truths, which were “This, too, shall pass,” and “The first hundred years are the worst.”

When my father tried to describe my grandmother to James, years after her death and decades after he divorced her daughter, he spoke very highly of her. “A really good woman,” he said. “Knew that sometimes stuff just…happens…and it’s nobody’s fault, and you just deal with it.” And he was right. That was a very good description of Grandma’s philosophy.

But it occurs to me that not being particularly religious may have something to do with it, and I’ll tell you, in a roundabout fashion, why. Bear with me.

Today I was at the urologist. It would be easy to get upset about the fact that I’m have weekly electrode-strapping-to-ass sessions, but eh, you gotta laugh. I had finished my session, repantsed, and headed to the checkout desk to make my co-pay.

An elderly woman was ambling slowly down the hall, and I went around her, rather than breathe down her neck, but once it became obvious we were headed to the same place, I offered her my spot in the line–she’d been in the hall before me, after all. She declined, saying her husband was actually at the front of the line, and she was waiting for him–but unfortunately this meant that we were now on conversational terms, and she launched into a tirade about how long she’d had to wait for her appointment.


“How long have you been here?” she asked, after ranting about times for a bit.

“Err…noon..?” I said meekly. (It was 12:30. I had a birthday lunch to go to, and my very obliging technician had whipped through the fastest biofeedback in the west. There was much mutual congratulations when we were done in twenty minutes.)

“I’ve been here since eleven! I had to wait out there–” she waved her hands at the waiting room, which is always packed.

“Well,” I said, in an effort to be conciliatory, “it’s a popular place.”

She would not be conciliated. “There’s no excuse! We have things to do!”

In a vain effort to defend the clinic workers, who have been nothing but kindness itself to me, (which I greatly appreciate, since having bladder issues is mentally awkward even for those of us 100% confident in the strength of our housebrokenness) I said, “Well, the waiting room’s full whenever I come in, but they’ve usually been very good…”

“Well,” she sniffed, “maybe some of us just don’t rate.”

The next few minutes of silence were awkward, to say the least.

This got me thinking, though. It’s not that I don’t get frustrated with long waits, or anything else–obviously I do. But my default assumption is that everybody on earth is overworked and making a good faith effort. Nine times out of ten, I’m probably right, and the tenth time, when it’s malice or slackers, I’m usually unaware, so it works out.

And the big thing, the key to happiness, if I know one at all, is that I try not to take anything personally. I don’t assume that I’m getting slow service because I don’t rate, or they don’t like me, or they think they can walk all over me, or anything of the sort. I’m pretty sure that most of the time, they don’t know I even exist, except as one more thing that needs to get dealt with in its turn, and I’m fine with that. When a receptionist remembers my name, I am touched, every time, because in their place, I wouldn’t have.

I have known a few people in life who were, for whatever reasons, desperately unhappy much of the time, and the one common factor I can find, looking back on encounters spanning decades, is that all of them took everything personally. There were no random acts in their world. Everything was malice. Everything was done with personal intent. Every refrain was “Why does this always happen to ME?”** When they had an unpleasant encounter, they ascribed all kinds of motivations to why the other person didn’t like them, or thought they could walk all over them.

I don’t think it was really paranoia, per se, so much as a belief that the world knew they existed, and didn’t much like them. It was a peculiar mating of insecurity with ego–too much ego to believe that no one was actually thinking about them, and too much insecurity to believe that these hypothetical people could be thinking well of them.

My happiness, it could be argued, is largely tied to the fact that I assume the world has no idea I exist.

Centipedes don’t bite me because God hates me, or because I’m unlucky. They bite because they’re predators, and I didn’t have gloves on. I ascribe malice to the centipede because I am creeped out by centipedes, but if I was stung by a bee, I wouldn’t. I’d think “Damn, neither the bee or I came out of that encounter very well…” The car tire doesn’t go flat because my life is shit, it goes flat because tires do that. My wait at the doctor is not long because I don’t rate, it’s long because they got slammed with fifty guys who’s kidneys just exploded, and my piddly little pelvic floor muscle isn’t gonna kill me in the next ten minutes. Things happen.

Thing is…

This is easy for me to believe because I am not religious. I can’t say I don’t believe in gods, because in a peculiar fashion, I sort of do. I would not, for all the tea in China, claim that my belief is based on any kind of proof or rationality, mind you, I would not try to convince anyone of my view. That sort of behavior I loathe. I am an evangelist for many things, Painter and China Mieville books among them, but I draw the line at gods.

Nevertheless, when I think of gods, I think of them much like they wound up getting portrayed in “Digger”–as sort of harried divine social workers. Beings who deal with things that need doing, who are…hmm, now that I think of it, overworked and making a good faith effort. And like receptionists and people at the doctor’s office, I would be quite flattered if a god remembered my name, but frankly, I figure they’re busy as hell.

And the thing is, I don’t really need a god at the moment. There is nothing wrong with my life that I can’t fix myself, or get someone to fix, or learn to live with. And so I have a feeling somewhere in my hindbrain that if I wandered in with the worship and the whining and the prayer, Ganesh or Anubis or Tauret or whatever deity I was hassling would look up, and fix me with tired elephant or jackal or hippopotamous eyes and say “What are you doing here? You’re fine. Get a job.”

And I’d deserve it.

But the thing is, that makes it easy for me. I don’t believe in an omnipotent god running everything, who knows every minute detail of my existence. And that makes it pretty easy not to take everything personally. When your world view is basically that we’re all in this together and nobody’s in charge and we’re all just trying our best and sometimes shit happens–well, it’s easy to say “Shit just happened today,” and shrug, and move on.

When you figure God’s breathing down your neck, you almost gotta assume that everything’s personal It’s a personal world. When you figure that the gods are just like the rest of us–overworked and making a good faith effort–and that the world is basically a random, weird, frequently unfair place–I think maybe it makes it easier.

I can’t speak to what makes other people happy. The other thing I know is that happiness is in some ways a skill, and some of us are good at it, and some of us aren’t. I think it can probably be learned, but maybe, like singing, you gotta have something to work with before you can build on top that. I don’t know. So this may only be a bit of personal navel-gazing of no use to anybody whatsoever.

But I think that’s a lot of why I’m happy.

Let me see–so far this week, I’ve insulted barbecue and God. What do I do to round out the trifecta? The flag? Apple pie? Family values? (Mom gets a free pass, she reads the blog.)

*Holy crap, it just now occurred to me that Grandma was a Deep One. Dude. I was fine with the white trash bit, but green trash will take some adjustment!

…okay, I’m adjusted. Ia! Ganesh ftaghn!

**The odds are very good I’m not talking about you, so don’t get paranoid, now. Also, in fairness, I’ve known a coulpa people who were just genuinely seriously unlucky. These things also happen, god knows…

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