On a medical mission for Operation Smile in Panama. Photo by Marc Ascher
The first time I felt the velocity of an emotional trigger it came so fast and so hard that the only way I can explain how l felt is to imagine standing on a train platform when the rush of a train traveling at high speed goes past you, and you physically shudder for a moment both at its intensity and sheer power. Once it has passed you feel a wave of gratitude that you are safe on the platform but stunned that it rattled you so. The key to a trigger is you have no idea when and where it will happen.
For me, it happened innocently enough. I had gone to visit a friend at the hospital after she had just had a baby. A healthy, happy beautiful baby. Her family was in her room visiting, they were ordering food, cooing over the baby and generally feeling the joy of a new life. No one was talking about how remarkable this all was, just to lay in your bed with your flowers and your balloons and hold your baby. Wow, I thought, wow.
I held it together while I was there, but the minute I got in my car, I drove away shaking and crying, my sadness coming from a place deep inside that I didn't even know existed. I was so jealous it felt unbearable. Why, I asked myself, did I have three children who were all born with disabilities? Why were my children always in the NICU for weeks after they were born, coming home with feeding machines while my husband and I were left to worry ourselves to death? Why don't other people know how lucky they are?
As my children grew, new things to worry about replaced old things. Isolated by our problems, I kept to myself, never really confiding in anyone the extent of our fears. Surgery after surgery left me in an almost contact state of panic. Then one day in between major surgeries, we had gone on a much-needed vacation. My kids were splashing and playing in the pool. Watching them laugh, I thought, while I'm sitting here worrying myself to death, they are busy being children -- silly happy children. They don't even know or understand all of the things they should be worried about. And that's when it hit me.
It was time to live in the here and now. Time to live in the moment. Time to trigger my happiness and theirs. Time to give us the life we deserved from the beginning. Ice cream cones, the sun on your face, laughing until tears fall down your face, dance contests in the living room or hugging them tightly, matter just as much visits to the doctor.
It is, in fact, possible to live life on the happy side I learned that day. Anxiety was not getting us anywhere, but joy, pure joy was a gift I could give them. It made us no less vigilant in our quest to get them the best medical care, if anything it makes us more determined because we are no longer distracted by unfairness. I spend a lot of time in hospitals and see great hardship. We are extremely lucky and I know it. Instead of dwelling on our setbacks, I try to wait patiently for kindness to come back around. If you look closely you can also start to see and feel the kindness all around you.
In my career as a public relations executive, I've been lucky enough to meet inspiring people who have overcome incredible tragedy and watch how they live their lives. Elizabeth Smart and Petra Nemcova are two women who have taken their personal hardships and gone on to lead inspiring, successful lives. Their aura motivates everyone around them.
Anyone can live life on the happy side. Surround yourself with people who make you want to be a better person, eliminate negative influences that diminish your energy and your opportunities. Your time is precious. Volunteer, be kind to an old person, tickle a child, listen thoughtfully, call an old friend, you will never regret any of these things. If you know someone who is suffering, reach out to them. When things are really hard for someone, it is the small things that will give them the greatest comfort. Not all problems, serious problems, can be solved, but there is always room for kindness and grace.
Recently, after two of my children had surgery on the same day, I was sleep-deprived and feeling down. I received an email telling me I was going to be honored for my volunteer work for Operation Smile. I was nominated for Best Health Advocate for the Light a Fire Award by Moffly Media by a friend who had grown up with a loved one who had a disability and it was her faith in me that gave me the greatest pride.
In the film, Silver Linings Playbook, Bradley Cooper's character famously captures this essence when he says, "This is what I believe to be true: You have to do everything you can, and if you stay positive, you have a shot at a silver lining." Finding happiness is after all, not something left to chance but a deliberate way of living or what Bradley Cooper's therapist tells him -- a "strategy."
#triggerhappiness -- that's my strategy.