In 2021, Fuck Happiness. Make Meaning Instead.

I am raising my young son to understand that life here on planet Earth includes pain and uncertainty. Recently, he took a tumble in which the back of his head smacked against a naked concrete floor in a North American garage. “Ouch!” Those of us who were privileged to be raised with skates and bicycles most likely know this sensation intimately.

My son cried his eyes out as I empathized with him and rocked him in my arms. Then, he felt angry, as though he were entitled to a life free of discomfort. So I shared with him that he was simply experiencing what most of us — including me — have already gone through.

Then, the 13-year old we were staying with at the time, came into the garage to inquire what had happened. After I told her, I asked if she had experienced something similar. Hearing how he wasn’t alone in his distress comforted him and he was soon back on his feet, ready to flip around the aerial yoga swing hanging overhead once more. (Except, this time, I remembered to push the rug underneath him. :( )

Life on planet Earth means that there is gravity to contend with as well as the fact that animal eats animal here — it is just the nature of it. Death is coming for each of us — we simply don’t know when. It is one of the greatest mysteries of all. We come here and celebrate our annual birth-days. Imagine if we celebrated the regular anniversaries of our eventual demise, too? Maybe then we wouldn’t take the minutes, days and — if we are lucky — years that follow so much for granted.

Up until very recently, I believed that we could control our fate. That the food and drink we consume, the amount of sleep we get and how we take care of our bodies can prolong our lives. I felt angry watching my partner, who had suffered through 6 rounds of chemotherapy and 48 sessions of radiation, drink alcohol. I wasn’t his mother and it wasn’t my job to dictate how he should live his life. When I tried too though he would simply say, “You don’t know what it feels like to almost die, Cara.” And, he was right — I don’t know how I would respond after returning from hell.

In many ways, he and I simply pulled a geographic when we moved from southern California to southern Ecuador. I was running from our global — Mother Wound and how it has haunted me since I became a mother myself. He, on the other hand, kept up with his same lifestyle habits. A night owl who preferred to nap in the morning or afternoon, he was attached to his technology, with both of his thumbs flying over his palm-sized telephone’s keyboard as continued to consume animal products and caffeine. My expectations that he be more like me — an outdoor lover who leaves Wi-Fi behind for hours at a time while she hikes up towering mountains and an early to bed, early to rise, morning bird who is constantly trying to drink more water — only brought me more anger.

On his death bed, my partner stated that I was the one who was creating separation between us because of how I kept accusing him of ‘not listening [to me].’ Again he was right, and all I could do was apologize for my behavior.

I just wanted him to live, ya know?

After he died, one of our dear friends flew south to help me make the 36-hour journey back home as a lone Mother with too much stuff and a young child to wield on her own. She told me the story of how her father had been diagnosed with lung cancer twenty years before and how he has spent the last two decades living with one lung without changing his patterns of habit. When other people die of cancer, especially those who make all the “right” moves by meditating and praying, changing their diet and lifestyle, etc. he wonders why he still lives.

When I visit with people who have hardened hearts, behave in self-righteous and disrespectful ways while eating conventional, big-box store food, I too wonder, “Why are they alive when my open-hearted, unconditionally loving man is dead?” It is deeply unjust and unfair. Yet, for the sake of my sanity, I choose to believe that we all come into this life with an expiration date and — no matter what — this fate cannot be avoided or deferred.

What if our Declaration of Independence is wrong? What if the pursuit of happiness isn’t one of the three reasons why we are here? Sure, the Dalai Lama makes happiness look necessary, and he certainly has a lot of wisdom to share. But what if we allowed happiness to be just a fleeting emotion that we know we can, and do, experience on some days, but not all? Imagine if we put less pressure on ourselves to be anything other than how and what we are, right in this very moment, right now?

During our ‘Mama Caravan’ across 17 of the contiguous United states, I provided just a few movies that my son could watch — over and over again — from the small screen that drops down from the roof of our white van. One of the videos that we love watching is Kung Fu Panda. In the film, Po — a panda raised by a noodle making goose — is the main protagonist who constantly compares himself to 5 kung fu masters, Tigress, Viper, Mantis, Monkey and Crane. Unlike them, Po is a very large, round and slow-moving animal. Thus, he continually falls short of his own expectations while even Master Shifu is disgusted by the idea of Po being the Dragon Warrior.

It isn’t until both Shifu and Po accept Po’s true nature that Po’s transformation can be complete. In other words, some people are designed to drink tea and meditate and move through life in a calm, peaceful manner with a big-ass smile on their faces. Meanwhile, others are passionate, messy people with resting bitch faces who like to swear and live life by the seat of their pants. There are also the Eeyore types who seem to carry a black cloud over their heads wherever they go. Yet, notice how Winnie the Pooh and crew always accept Eeyore for exactly how and who he is — no change needed. This is the nature of friendship and it is also a demonstration of how acceptance is key in everything we do.

Instead of trying to control life as we contort ourselves into looking and being like what we have been sold we are supposed to look and be like, perhaps we are here to learn how to grow and be with ‘what is.’ Distress is here, and so is peace. It all exists, now. Perhaps our job is to feel all of it as we attempt to craft meaning around all of life’s uncertainties.

By being embodied and in connection with all of life, including our planet, we can experience more meaning, especially when we attune ourselves to synchronicity. We also make meaning by participating in ritual and ceremony, through art making and story-telling.

With both of my miscarriages, I made art as I tried to communicate with my body and the processes that were happening within it. As a family, we created ritual by burying a 7-week old embryo, painting rocks and erecting a garden of loss. As a woman, I also had a ceremony with my closest sisters to mark these rites of passage that I didn’t choose, but that chose me. And, in each instance, I have felt deep completion in each of my experiences — no “do over’s” required.

The beauty of meaning making is that it is a deeply personal, unalienable right. No one gets to dictate or decide what is of meaning to each of us. Our ability to make sense of the senseless is the one thing that we can control in this life. And, the irony is that the more meaning we make in our lives — by accepting all of the injustice that we have experienced and spinning it in a way in which we are not the victims but rather the victors on our own heroine’s journey — the more we experience a great sense of contentment, richness and, even, prolonged happiness in our lives.

As Viktor Frankl, Austrian Holocaust survivor and author of the seminal book, Man’s Search for Meaning, said: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

Cara H. Cadwallader is an embodiment artist who dances upon the earth as well as with her fingers across a keyboard. Dance with her at carahcadwallader.com

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