Perfect to Each Other: On ‘How to Be Happy’ and My First Season of FBC
By Dan Bjork
How to Be Happy (proper) is preceded by an author’s note that instantly endeared me to the book: “This is not actually a book about how to be happy, however, and if you’re struggling, the following have been helpful for me.” After which, Eleanor Davis lists three books that can be a parachute, if you took the title of her book at face value and are indeed in search of one. In other words, what follows will not provide any single-entendre help. Don’t come here if what you need is a parachute. However, if what you do need is a parachute, here a few that have worked for me.
Which makes this as good a place as any to get into what I got out of the FBC this season: The beginning of a framework with which to talk about mental illness. The sort of ethereal marjoram I’ve thought around, more than about — the sort of stuff I’d never tried to digest in a way that would make any sort of communication about such possible. (And for me, being able to talk about mental illness goes hand in hand with building an understanding of it, of continually approaching a better understanding; I’m having a hard time describing a lifetime of [hopefully] increasing and multi-faceted understand, a process that is never and cannot possibly be complete, without using a word like ‘asymptotic,’ which I just now did anyway.)
To me this book felt much more like “How to Not Be Unhappy.” And, what I mean by that, not addressing the causes of unhappiness, but rather all the social muck that comes with them. I’ve talked about shame before, but it feels like the first step to “not being unhappy” is eliminating the shame. Or rather, fighting on two fronts, fighting the shame first (maybe/probably/optimally — I’m still not entirely sure). But How to Be Happy is more detailed. More messy. Or maybe, the better way to put it is, I am ready — now, in my progression toward a better understanding — for How to Be Happy to be more messy. When I read Hyperbole and a Half, I was so un-nuanced in my consideration of mental illness that the separation of the actual suffering and the consequent shame that follows hit me like the holy ghost. It’s easily as close as I’ve come in quite some time to the sort of epiphanies that regularly occur in well-wrought short stories. And I wasn’t at all ready to even begin considering the pure messiness that can follow trying to overcome shame. Hyperbole and a Half had this too, to be sure, I can remember at least a half-dozen instances, but none of them registered for me then. Not like they did here, in How to Be Happy, some three months later. Because there’s much more than simply not giving a fuck about the objectifying glare of an old woman in Blockbuster Video. Or overcoming the shame (about feeling as if you are “simply soft”) to describe your own personal suffering to enough people that someone will put you on a track to more optimal functioning. Because everything (of depth) with other people is messy. And everyone suffers. Everyone has seemingly antecedently suffering, or in the very least, suffering that seems wildly out of proportion with what supposedly caused it in our consensus reality. And, even the most earnest, empathetic friend can try and find a foothold to understand by searching his personal experience for something analogous. Even people who care deeply. Which is perfectly represented by the gluten comic (above).
Adam wrote about being struck by the comic about the statue of the perfect me — and that one’s dope, to be sure — but the one that caught me was about two women on different islands. To me, this feels like the perfect complement to that.
On clear days, we come to the shore and look for each other. We don’t understand what the other is saying, we can’t even see each other’s faces, but it doesn’t really matter. Because, for those moments, despite the gulf between us, neither of us is alone.
And maybe that’s as close as we can come to being perfect to each other.
Anything closer is muddled and messy, and amidst the pure torrent of minutia, the miracle of such a moment between two people is so easily forgotten.