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Operation UNunhappy Over & Out

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“And that letter hath she delivered, and there an end.”  ~William Shakespeare (Two Gentlemen of Verona, II, i)

SAVboatsnight

This will be the last entry of my “Operation UNunhappy” blog.  For those of you that have read all (or even some of) the words I’ve written over the past two and a half years through this outlet, I thank you and I appreciate your support.  I’m not saying I’ll never write or blog again, but if I do, it will be under a different guise and theme than this one.  I may keep this blog and just change the name, or maybe I’ll start a whole new one in the future…I haven’t decided yet.

What I have decided is that I have come to believe you can’t achieve happiness by constantly seeking it.  I believe that, if we’re lucky, we get to experience small moments of happiness here and there, every once in a while – sometimes they appear of our own making, and sometimes they are pleasant surprises bestowed upon us by others or by fate. I think mostly they’re just a byproduct of regular old life; hopefully just by living your life the best that you can, you have more happy moments than unhappy ones.  But to constantly be on some incredible journey to seek out this overarching, grandiose every-moment-of-life overflowing barrel of happiness – it’s just not possible.  Or advisable, in my opinion.  “Happy in that we are not over-happy,” said Hamlet, one of my favorite Shakespeare lines – even way back then, there was a cautiousness against overdoing it in the search for contentment.   

A few years ago I made some big changes in my life to try to get happier, which was the impetus for starting this blog.  Did the changes work?  In some ways, I’d say yes, definitely.  Has everything progressed the way I’d hoped it would?  I’d say no, not really.  I’m starting to feel stuck again and those feelings of wondering have come back, leading to ruts of anxiety and uncertainty and frustration.  One of the other reasons I don’t feel like continuing this blog series is because I fear it could be on the verge of becoming a constant complaint-fest about all of the many things and people I’m frustrated with – no one wants to read about that, and I don’t think it would be good for me to write about it all the time.  

I do feel like I get more easily and quickly frustrated with the daily intricacies of life than most people.  I don’t know if it’s a genetic thing or just my personality.  Maybe it’s that inner perfectionist that I keep trying to fight, wanting everyone and everything else to be perfect too.  I’ve had fantasies of just being completely 100% honest all the time with people and situations that irk the hell out of me, but I’d probably need to invest in some body armor if I wanted to make that dream a reality.  Why can’t we just say what we’re feeling and thinking of all the time?  (Or at least like 65% of the time?)  I mean, I know why, but it just seems sometimes that we’re so obsessed with being polite and non-confrontational that we’re dying inside of repressed feelings and sentiments that, if we could just free them, maybe it wouldn’t be so bad after all.  Maybe that’s the real key to contentment, but we’re so concerned with how everyone else feels all the time that we continually neglect our own needs of expression, and silently go on in glum survival-of-the-mediocre mode.  God I really must come from British roots after all…

I know I have it pretty good in the overall scheme of things.  Everyone has to deal with many aspects of life that are frustrating, annoying, angering, overwhelming, heartbreaking; if we’re lucky, we have family and friends and captive co-workers to be our sounding boards and help us through those tough times.  If we’re really lucky, we can afford to pay therapists to listen when family and friends get tired of doing it (or when we’re too annoyed with family and friends to talk to them about it). And if we’re broken – well, we all deal with that in different ways…some good, some not so good.  Healing is hard.

I’ve enjoyed writing this blog, and it helped me in many ways to face both past and present challenges.  It was cathartic to write about losses and traumas in my life (I still miss the smell of popcorn paws every day), and I meant every word of the heartfelt Life Letters to My Nephews; being Ant Kristi to my nephews is definitely near the top of the list of what makes me UNunhappy during the good times. Thanks for bearing with me as I waxed on (and on and on) about my trips to England and my fascination with the Tour de France.  And I apologize for those less-than-stellar posts (mediocre movie & croissant reviews, you know who you are). 

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I feel like I’ve gotten out of this blog what I needed to…and I hope it provided a moment or two of occasional entertainment, education, or value (somehow) for you too.  For better or worse, things end; isn’t that one of life’s most important lessons?  Thanks for the words of encouragement during these times of transitions over the past few years.  I’ll keep the blog site active for now and if you stay subscribed, you’ll get any new posts that may come along under a different/new blog name, but it may be a while. 

“Tis time, I think, to trudge, pack and be gone.”  (Yes, one last Shakespeare quote, from Comedy of Errors, which seems fitting for a large portion of my life thus far.  You are now freed from any more random Shakespeare quotes!)

Operation UNunhappy over and out.

Ant Kristi

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Should We Search for Happiness?

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Happy thou art not; For what thou hast not, still thou strivest to get, and what thou hast, forget’st.” ~William Shakespeare (Measure for Measure, III, i)

A few weeks ago I saw a movie at my local art-house theatre called “Hector & The Search for Happiness.”  It had gotten extremely poor critic reviews but, being the author of a blog with the title ‘Operation UNunhappy,’ I felt somewhat obliged to shell out the $8.50 (for a matinée no less) to see what Hector’s search turned up.

I had high hopes since it is a British film and stars Simon Pegg, but unfortunately the critics got it right on this one: it was a pretty bad movie.  The main character of Hector is a psychiatrist living a perfect life in London with a perfect apartment and a perfect girlfriend and perfectly-neurotic psychiatric patients in his practice, when he suddenly starts to feel that all that perfection has left his life devoid of any true meaning or happiness.  And so he predictably goes on his own eat-pray-love journey under the Tuscan sun, except he decides to go not to Italy but to China (those Tibetan monks always have good insights)…and then to Africa (to a non-specified country, as if everywhere in Africa is exactly the same)…and then finally to Los Angeles (for a head-rattling visit with Captain Von Trapp), before finally heading back to London for a tidy movie happy ending.

Along the way he throws caution (and wisdom) to the wind, naively placing himself into stereotypical tourist-trap predicaments that endanger his life but supposedly make him a happier guy in the end.  At each lesson-learning turn we see a handwritten entry flash on the screen from Hector’s travel journal:  “Happiness is sometimes not knowing the whole story;” “Happiness is feeling completely alive;” and the ever-helpful “Happiness is sweet potato stew.”  Most annoying in the movie however was the plot point that his perfect girlfriend was also miserable simply because she and Hector had decided not to have children, but that by the end of the movie she changed her mind and decided becoming a mother would magically provide her with the ultimate contentment – which of course brought Hector home from his soul-searching journey and they lived happily ever after.  (Insert much eye-rolling here.)

There was one tidbit in the movie that was familiarly thought-provoking, which claimed that we can’t find happiness by trying to avoid or outrun unhappiness.  And at one point in the movie Hector says “The more we focus on our personal happiness the more it is useless.”  I’ve read this train of thought many times – that it’s pointless to actually and actively pursue happiness, because one you begin to search for it, it will naturally evade you.  Can this be true?

If you start looking at happiness proverbs and quotes by those apparently deemed to be experts on the subjects, you start to see a trend to this topic:

  • “The bird of paradise alights only on the hand that does not grasp.” – John Berry
  • “Happiness is not a goal; it is a by-product.” – Eleanor Roosevelt
  • “Perfect happiness is the absence of striving for happiness.” – Chuang-Tzu

But if the pursuit of happiness is so useless, then why did our American founders write a Declaration of Independence that guarantees our right to just that?  It’s ingrained in our cultural core to do what makes us happy, and if we’re unhappy, to take steps to rectify it (many very wealthy therapists out there depend on this inherently human struggle).  I think that happiness and the hunt for it is – even if tangentially – what drives every single one of us in all of our actions, whether or not we want to admit that. 

A few weeks ago I was asked to be one of two guest speakers to a university class on the subject of blogging – what is it, why do people blog, what makes for a successful blog, etc.  Our audience was a group of ESL students – people from all over the world that are studying here in America and trying to make a better life for themselves.  The other guest speaker is a coworker of mine in the same office, we’ve worked together for over a year now, but we did not discuss our own personal blogs with each other before the class presentation.  Imagine our mutual surprise when we discovered that both of our blogs deal with the subject of happiness – what is it, why and how do people look for it, what makes for a happy life, etc…  We had to convince the professors and students that we hadn’t planned it that way!

After the class, a young man with a thick foreign accent approached me and wanted to know if my blog story was true: that I had quit my miserable job that was making me sick and consciously left bad things in my life behind in an attempt to be more fulfilled and yes, happier.  He seemed very anxious to know if it had worked – did I feel better, was I happier, was that a good decision?  I could tell he was going through something in his life that was putting him at a crossroads – a place where we have all been at one time or another, no matter what corner of the globe we are from.  Finding our way out of unhappiness is a universal denominator.

I think there is some truth to the proverbs above.  I think if we focus too much on finding happiness that the search ends up being a possible antithesis to the final objective.  But I don’t think pursuing goals and dreams that could possibly make you happier is a bad thing.  Yes we should be happy with and grateful for what we already have, and for the experiences that have shaped us, but is searching for contentment – no matter how one defines it – really such an exercise in futility?  We can’t be happy all the time, that’s completely unrealistic – I know I’m not.  I’m not unhappy all the time either.  Maybe striking the right balance between both states is the real goal?

Or maybe, as American journalist John Gunther once said “All happiness depends on a leisurely breakfast.”  Bon appétit.

perfectbreakfast

 À la prochaine!

Ant Kristi

Memories Light the Corners of My Mud Brick Hut

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“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers…” ~William Shakespeare (Henry V, IV, iii)

Bowel habits, big bugs, and blistering heat…tales of long bus trips and cracked, dirty feet.  These are just a few of the favorite things that Returned Peace Corps Volunteers love to talk about.  Spend any real time around one and eventually the conversation will take a turn down a foreign road beginning with “This one time when I was in Peace Corps…”  Get a bunch of returned volunteers together in one room and the most commonly-heard story starter is “In my country…” (talking of the country where we served).

In order to save our friends and family members from that perpetual glassy-eyed haze that comes from listening to yet one more excerpt of Peace Corps nostalgia, we have our own memory outlet in the form of a weekly Twitter online chat group, called #RPCVchat.  It’s a one-hour discussion that’s been hosted by the National Peace Corps Association (NPCA) in Washington DC since June 2011, and it’s open to all Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs) and currently-serving PCVs around the world.  For a short time most Fridays, we tune in from states and countries near and far to remember, honor, laugh, commiserate, brainstorm, theorize and advocate.  A big thank you to NPCA for tirelessly hosting this weekly chat session for almost 3 years now already!

I’ve been participating in the chats on a pretty regular basis for over two years now, and I really look forward to these sessions each time they’re held.  Even though the actual “chat” is not verbal at all, but rather silent on my part as I read and respond from my computer or phone, I still feel part of a welcoming community of like-minded people, and that’s comforting.  Recently some of the topics of our more popular chats have been:

  • Peace Corps & Technology (so much to discuss it had to be a two-parter!)
  • Valentine’s Day Edition: Love & Romance in the Peace Corps
  • The Peace Corps Commemorative Act (three words: bronzed flip-flops)
  • Gift-Giving & Holiday Traditions during Peace Corps
  • Leadership & the Peace Corps
  • Day of the Girl & Gender Roles in the Peace Corps
  • Favorite Foods while in the Peace Corps
  • Toilets & Bathrooms in Peace Corps (brought about by “poopular” demand in honor of World Toilet Day back in November)

The most recent #RPCVchat focused on the issue of happiness during our service (as it did fall on International Day of Happiness).  (There truly is a “day” for every little thing now on the calendar, but why only one lonely day for happiness I wonder?  Shouldn’t it warrant a month, or a quarter at least?)  This being a blog dedicated to the idea and pursuit of being UNunhappy, I felt it warranted not only a mention but a brief expounding as well.

Our moderator started things off by asking “what was your happiest day in the Peace Corps, and what made it so happy?”  This is actually a pretty difficult question and made me really think.  I get this inquiry quite a lot actually although sometimes it comes in the form of “what was the best part of your whole Peace Corps service?”  (I get the opposite question just as much, asking me what the worst part was…which is even more difficult to answer diplomatically!)

Just like life here in America, life during Peace Corps in a foreign country has its ups and downs and my experience was no different.  I did have plenty of not-so-great days, whether it was because of personal or personnel issues where I lived and worked, or consistent gastrointestinal woes brought about by my puny resistance to street food pathogens.  I can’t ever forget the serious injuries I sustained during a security incident and the resulting long recovery road (both physical and mental).  But things were far from all bad; once I started thinking about all the good days during my service, the days that I remember as being truly happy and satisfying, it was easy to come up with many examples:

  • International Women’s Day during my second year, when we held the first-ever all-girls soccer match in front of the entire village, chief elders included.  It wasn’t even related to my primary job assignment, but this secondary project of pulling together girls’ soccer teams and helping to organize the match is one of my proudest accomplishments of my service.
  • The day I figured out I could use my rudimentary Dutch oven to bake an actual chocolate cake – which I then shared with neighbors who had never tasted such a thing, which made it all the sweeter.  This was only possible when I could find eggs, which for some reason was next to impossible where I lived.  Also related: when I could obtain fresh baguette bread, which wasn’t very often in my village, I would toast it in my Dutch oven and slather it with local fresh peanut butter for the perfect breakfast.  This would set my happiness quotient at a very high bar for the rest of the day.
  • Any day during mango season – I fondly remember many, many days when I would eat nothing but mangoes and freshly-roasted peanuts for breakfast, lunch, and sometimes even dinner.  The mangoes and peanuts were that good, that I never got tired of them.
  • About halfway through my service, our tiny two-room health clinic obtained a generator-powered refrigerator to be able to keep vaccines in cold storage.  But my clinic colleagues and I also would take the liberty from time to time of using any extra room and shelf space to store liquid libations that were MUCH better cold: for me, that usually meant either Kool-Aid or Gatorade…for my colleagues, it meant bottles of beer, Coke and Fanta.  Days with ice-cold Kool-Aid = extreme happiness for a Peace Corps Volunteer used to drinking only warm and hot water for months on end in a village with no electricity and equator-sizzling temps.
  • Days I received mail, and especially care packages, were always very happy ones for me.  The care packages usually contained chocolatey Clif Bars and other treats, which I hoarded and rationed out over weeks to make the happiness last as long as possible.  The words on the paper bringing news from home of family, friends, and my dog were just as treasured.
  • I remember being very happy to be included in the tea-making ritual that would take place amongst friends and coworkers in my village almost every afternoon.  It’s an elaborate, social activity culminating in teeny tiny portions of brewed tea in small shot glasses that pack a powerful caffeine punch despite their size.  The tea was good (especially with those roasted peanuts), but it was the social aspect of the discussion and friendship that was the happiest part of it for me.  A fellow Burkina PCV wrote an excellent blog post in 2013 about making tea in Burkina, which you can read here.
  • Straying from the food & drink theme (which if you haven’t figured out by now are forefront interests for all PCVs!), I also remember being extremely happy on the day I rode my bike to a neighboring village to pick out and adopt the (almost) cutest tiny little African puppy you’ve ever seen (second only to a little Foxy red poodle I once knew).  I strapped him into a cardboard box onto the back of my bike and all the way back along the red dirt road to my mud-brick hut, he kept poking his little head out to see what was going on.  Little Mulder quickly became Very Big Mulder as he was the best-fed dog in the village, and a very important part of my Peace Corps life.
  • Lying in my hammock in my courtyard during the cool rainy season while listening to BBC on my shortwave radio – those simplistic little experiences make for long-lasting happy memories.
hammock time

Hammock Time

puppymulder

Puppy Mulder

I’ve been looking through some of my letters I wrote to family & friends during Peace Corps, and thought I’d note here a few other examples of times I mentioned being or feeling happy:

  • “Health is good today except for alligator-dry skin; but the tradeoff is no acne so I’m pretty darn happy about that.”
  • “I feel part of something bigger & better than I have in a long time; I’m sure a lot of it is the elation of the day and the facts that I went swimming after the ceremony and found actual sour cream & onion potato chips to eat (!) – but nevertheless I feel sound at heart tonight and proud of myself.”  (Written on the day we were sworn in as PCVs at the Embassy after 3 months of training.)
  • “Today someone complimented me on my French…so that made me feel pretty good. I love the reactions I’m getting from the local women when I say hello to them in Djoula [their local native language] – they go from frowns to all grins and giggles. They say to each other ‘She understands Djoula!’ Which I don’t very well, but what they don’t know…”

I don’t want to sugar-coat my time in Burkina Faso: life there, in one of the world’s poorest countries, is hard.  Very hard.  (I loved and laughed at a fellow RPCV’s tweet the other day that said “Every time someone asks me what the Peace Corps was really like I think, ‘You can’t handle the truth!‘”)  Quite honestly, one of the accomplishments I’m most proud of as a Peace Corps Volunteer having served there is simply that I survived and actually finished my two-year term.  Some members of my family didn’t think I would stay or finish because of the rough conditions…and there were times I almost didn’t.  But I’m glad and proud that I stuck it out, finished my projects, and hopefully made a positive impact in some way.  And I like remembering the positive and happy times like the ones mentioned above.  It doesn’t negate or erase the challenging times, but it feels good to think of what was good about my time there.

Returned Peace Corps Volunteers share an unspoken bond, knowing that we’ve challenged ourselves to extreme limits by going to the far corners of the world in hopes of helping others, promoting world peace and friendship, and discovering more about our own selves in the process.  Through forums like #RPCVchat and involvement in our local returned volunteers associations where we live, we are free to tell as many latrine, bus and village stories as we want without fear of judgement or drowsiness.  It’s a nice group to be a part of.

À la prochaine!

Ant Kristi

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