on getting older and accepting happiness

bryan smile bw

In high school, I was voted “most optimistic,” one of those senior superlatives that only functions on the periphery of what our peers really care about. We opened our yearbooks for “best eyes” or “best looking” or “class clown.” I had no idea why I got that vote.

Like any other teen, I dealt with my own layers of daily High School Shit, both real and make believe. I had good friends, but never felt popular enough. I was on athletic teams, but never the cool ones. I got good grades and dreamed about what college might hold for me.

I had bad acne. I often felt sad. Sometimes depressed. And, looking back from today, can’t recall how optimism came to be a part of that routine, let alone what everyone saw that I obviously missed.

I also now realize, years later, that I should have been more welcoming of such a compliment. Whether in an archival book dedicated to memories people may want to forget as easily as remember, or in real life, I was simply bad at accepting that kind of treatment. Mostly because I felt I didn’t deserve it.

Generally speaking, I’m bad at accepting words of praise, but definitive statements of personal qualities, especially democratically voted ones, felt more like a burden than benefit. At the time, there were definitely days where a forced smile was needed. Finding aspects of authentic optimism was probably more daunting than anything.

But it’s also a good thing that’s all in the past. Personal growth is slow and hard. Pretty much everyone is not wired for automatic self-awareness. It takes work. And now, on the new side of my latest birthday, it feels good to take stock and realize that maybe I did deserve that commendation so long ago.

Having a birthday so close to New Year’s creates an odd connection to annual conversations of rebirth and renewal. As soon as I celebrate one on Jan. 1, it’s almost time to do it all over again. Near-universally, both dates act as an arbitrary reset button when we can or we’re supposed to reflect on all that was, and yet to be. But hot damn if jamming all that in the course of one week feels like a bit much. Fun, for sure, but a bit much.

This year, maybe for the first time, it doesn’t feel so bad. The self-awareness I could have really used when I was 18 has taken hold. Life experiences good, bad, terrifying, and altering all took place across 2018. They’re not over just because a year has passed, or because I got to turn 34, but I hope and think and believe I’m ready. For whatever.

We’re all lucky for what we have, and in a way, lucky for what we lose, too. Finding happiness, let alone holding onto ways to remain happy, is humanistic work we all put in, with small increments, over the course of our lives. It’s about learning all the time. To be OK with looking on the bright side or finding the absurd in everything and laughing so god damned much you sometimes don’t know why you started in the first place. Belly laughs are fucking medicinal, I tell you.

Deep breaths help. And friends. And talking to people, whether personally close or professionally paid. It’s never easy, but, dear reader, it. is. worth it.

It wasn’t until a few years ago I stopped to think about that high school award of sorts bestowed on me by peers who knew me to various degrees. It never occurred to me at the time that the way they saw me, and what that meant to them, may have mattered. I tried hard in everything I did, even when it hurt. I just didn’t realize it. Ignorance to your own effort is a kind of blind optimism, I suppose. And maybe in the most blissful way.

I had no idea why I got that vote back then. I’m really glad I got it today.

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2 thoughts on “on getting older and accepting happiness

  1. I loved this. We chose to name our brewery Optimism because we knew our kids would hear the name of our business all the time and so we wanted it to be one of our core values. We hope they will take something from it. Sounds like it might be years, but it will happen. 😉

    We’d always thought New Years Eve would be our biggest event at the brewery because it is truly the optimist’s holiday: a celebration for reinvention and resolutions. However, too much drinking for alcohol’s sake happens that night so now we just close early, and it is hard to get people to take stock at a brewery on what has become National Hangover Day. Too bad.

    Congratulations on your HS award and for continuing to live it and share it. Writers must be optimists to get up every day and keep working.

  2. This is one of the first posts you’ve written that I’ve been able to thoughtfully respond to (whereas the industry insights… well… they’re awesome reads, but I’m an outsider). Great post!

    I was just having an imaginary conversation in my head with a student who (I was concerned may have been) contemplating suicide. Personally, I felt at least faux suicidal all of the time throughout high school and college, and I typically registered as a pretty happy person (at least in high school). I imagined telling this student that they have the right to be depressed, to wallow in their own personal agony, and to contemplate suicide. Hell, in college, they might even make a few mistakes SO LONG AS THEY LIVED THROUGH ALL OF THEM (I’m thinking underage drinking, not suicide attempts).

    My point is, for whatever reason and at whenever point, we usually pull out of it. You’re right: working on ourselves is incremental and tedious and most of us aren’t born with the self-awareness necessary to begin working on ourselves.

    I remember my father telling me back in high school (me, not him) that he tried to strive for perfection every day. It sounded exhausting. Similarly, I’ve turned some page where it is no longer about fighting depression; daily life is more about coping with my own attitude and reactions toward life, as well as striving toward self-betterment.

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