“Happiness is different from pleasure. Happiness has something to do with struggling and enduring and accomplishing.” – George Bernard Shaw
I find this quotation recorded in teenage girl bubble letters in an old journal. The cover is dark blue, padded, and sprinkled with images of pointing golden retrievers, mallard ducks in flight, and brown paisley swirls. My grandmother must have given it to me for some Christmas or birthday present, because in her delicate script handwriting I see my name recorded on the line following “This Book Belongs To:” and then, on the first lined page, the words “My favorite recipes.” I didn’t record a single recipe in the book. I recorded quotations.
I remember pouring through Reader’s Digest to find quotes that tugged me. I remember dog-earing pages of library books to hold my place while I scribbled down an author’s pithy rendition of truth. I don’t remember highlighting some of my journal’s quotations, but at some point, I must have. There, on the first page of the journal, is the George Bernard Shaw quote. Highlighted.
Now, for at least the third time in my life (first, write it down, second, highlight it, third, pass it on), I stumble on the truth in Shaw’s words. To struggle, to endure, to accomplish equals happiness. Sometimes words haunt me with a shade of déjà vu. Endurance seems to be the word of the week. Yesterday, my pastor spoke about Paul’s arresting syllogism from Romans 5:3-4: “Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.” Endurance, the pastor explained, in its roots has something to do with working through a difficult experience, to go through without giving in. It comes from the Latin indurare, to harden. I’ve always thought of endurance as something uncomfortable, if not downright unsavory. Endurance? No thanks. I’ll just take something a little easier, please. Yet now I realize that both Paul and George (of the Bible and Shaw lineage, respectively, not the Beatles), saw more in the act of enduring than I had. There is a stripped down beauty to endurance. A raw, edgy, determination to accept circumstances. An ability to rise Phoenix-like from the ashes of our previous lives into something greater, more refined.
To endure. I think of running. Remember from one of my previous posts that I’m not exactly the most liberated, complaint-free runner. Quite the contrary. I rather detest physical activity. Yet I have learned (the hard way, as I seem to learn many lessons in life), that running does more than shed the pounds gained thanks to the Thanksgiving turkey. In order to get anywhere with my runs, I’ve had to endure past the physical pains of shin splints, stress fractures, and sore lungs. I’ve had to push past mental walls that tempt me with visions of lying on couches, sipping iced teas, and reading novels. To accomplish anything with running, I’ve had to gain endurance physically and mentally to push toward that goal that eludes me yet: 13.1 miles and a finish line in sight. It’s hard. It’s sweaty. It’s tedious. And yet. And yet running and the endurance it draws out of a sloth like me has some sense of sweet reward. Come September 19, if the finish line of my half marathon is in sight, I suspect that George Bernard Shaw may be proven correct in that all of my hours and miles of training, all of that struggling and endurance, will end up with a pretty happy (if foot sore) Beth.
To endure. I think of Grandpapa. It’s Memorial Day, after all, and he’s my closest veteran relative. I think of the way he served in Northern Africa as an engineer on top secret projects. I think of how he kept his oath of confidentiality for four decades and never revealed to his friends or family his role in designing equipment for use in desert warfare. So good was he at keeping mum, I know no more than those bullet points about his involvement in World War II. My grandfather died when I was thirteen. For four months after his diagnosis of mesothelioma, I ignored his battle and refused to write him letters. I thought, perhaps childishly, that writing to him would force me to acknowledge the inevitable end of his struggle. No letters, no acknowledgement, no end, or so my logic went. The end came anyway. What endures now is regret over missing my chance to send my love to his mailbox. Fortunately, I’m also left with a strong sense of his presence in my life, a presence that I can now pass on to my daughter. I’m grateful that family is something that endures in our lives. As my mom so beautifully expressed in a letter she wrote to me as I left for college, “Remember, we are not separating. You are merely stretching out on an extension cord, still connected and plugged into us, carrying the light that is you and us both a little farther into the world.”
To endure. I think of Little Friend. She has taught me to endure. To go through without giving in. Little Friend turns 18 months in a few weeks, and if I think back to my life, say, just 20 months ago, the difference is arresting. Having a premature baby, quitting a career I love for a stint as a stay-at-home mom…these experiences seem so simple when summarized in quick introductory phrases like that. How words fail to convey the times when I’ve wanted to give in and not go through. Yet in direct correlation to how difficult the past 18 months have been, I find an equal balance of happiness. Somehow living through the challenges has given me a deeper, stronger hold on happiness. Not the light, fluffy, effervescent emotion that George Bernard Shaw terms “pleasure.” Real, deep, well-earned, trial-by-fire happiness. I frequently catch myself identifying my present life with the term “halcyon.” A melodic word that Miriam-Webster defines with the synonyms “calm, peaceful, happy, golden.” Perfect is not on the list. But happy, the endurance-born emotion, is.
Today, I borrowed a corner of dirt in a friend’s garden for ten tomato plants, six pepper plants, two fennel bulbs, some sage, parsley, basil and thyme. As I patted earth, tossed rocks, and brushed grass from my knees, I watched my daughter ignore the pain from a blister on her foot to toddle between the edge of the tilled earth and our friend’s dog. A straw from her box of soy milk dangled from her lip. Her fluffy blond hair flared in the breeze. She babbled to herself. These are golden moments, made all the more precious because of the strength I’m gathering from enduring, from going through experiences I probably would have backed away from, given the choice. I’m glad we’re not given the choice to accept our circumstances. I’m grateful we are given the choice as to how we will accept them. If endurance can produce such honed happiness and hope, then come what may, I’m striving to endure.