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Divine Social Workers and the Secret of Happiness

I am a pretty happy person. Occasionally readers comment on this, in tones ranging from bafflement to envy to mild disgust. Mea culpa.

Part of this is simply my coping mechanisms, I must admit--if I blog something unpleasant, and I can make it funny, the funny story in my head edges out the real unpleasantness as the dominant memory. There's a lot to be said for storytelling as therapy. Part of it's just innate, I suppose--I am, under the layers of Squidward-like sarcasm, basically an optimist. My grandmother, who had every ailment known to man and a few, like vestigal gills,* that were right out of the ballpark, impressed on me two great truths, which were "This, too, shall pass," and "The first hundred years are the worst."

When my father tried to describe my grandmother to James, years after her death and decades after he divorced her daughter, he spoke very highly of her. "A really good woman," he said. "Knew that sometimes stuff just...happens...and it's nobody's fault, and you just deal with it." And he was right. That was a very good description of Grandma's philosophy.

But it occurs to me that not being particularly religious may have something to do with it, and I'll tell you, in a roundabout fashion, why. Bear with me.

Today I was at the urologist. It would be easy to get upset about the fact that I'm have weekly electrode-strapping-to-ass sessions, but eh, you gotta laugh. I had finished my session, repantsed, and headed to the checkout desk to make my co-pay.

An elderly woman was ambling slowly down the hall, and I went around her, rather than breathe down her neck, but once it became obvious we were headed to the same place, I offered her my spot in the line--she'd been in the hall before me, after all. She declined, saying her husband was actually at the front of the line, and she was waiting for him--but unfortunately this meant that we were now on conversational terms, and she launched into a tirade about how long she'd had to wait for her appointment.


"How long have you been here?" she asked, after ranting about times for a bit.

"Err...noon..?" I said meekly. (It was 12:30. I had a birthday lunch to go to, and my very obliging technician had whipped through the fastest biofeedback in the west. There was much mutual congratulations when we were done in twenty minutes.)

"I've been here since eleven! I had to wait out there--" she waved her hands at the waiting room, which is always packed.

"Well," I said, in an effort to be conciliatory, "it's a popular place."

She would not be conciliated. "There's no excuse! We have things to do!"

In a vain effort to defend the clinic workers, who have been nothing but kindness itself to me, (which I greatly appreciate, since having bladder issues is mentally awkward even for those of us 100% confident in the strength of our housebrokenness) I said, "Well, the waiting room's full whenever I come in, but they've usually been very good..."

"Well," she sniffed, "maybe some of us just don't rate."

The next few minutes of silence were awkward, to say the least.

This got me thinking, though. It's not that I don't get frustrated with long waits, or anything else--obviously I do. But my default assumption is that everybody on earth is overworked and making a good faith effort. Nine times out of ten, I'm probably right, and the tenth time, when it's malice or slackers, I'm usually unaware, so it works out.

And the big thing, the key to happiness, if I know one at all, is that I try not to take anything personally. I don't assume that I'm getting slow service because I don't rate, or they don't like me, or they think they can walk all over me, or anything of the sort. I'm pretty sure that most of the time, they don't know I even exist, except as one more thing that needs to get dealt with in its turn, and I'm fine with that. When a receptionist remembers my name, I am touched, every time, because in their place, I wouldn't have.

I have known a few people in life who were, for whatever reasons, desperately unhappy much of the time, and the one common factor I can find, looking back on encounters spanning decades, is that all of them took everything personally. There were no random acts in their world. Everything was malice. Everything was done with personal intent. Every refrain was "Why does this always happen to ME?"** When they had an unpleasant encounter, they ascribed all kinds of motivations to why the other person didn't like them, or thought they could walk all over them.

I don't think it was really paranoia, per se, so much as a belief that the world knew they existed, and didn't much like them. It was a peculiar mating of insecurity with ego--too much ego to believe that no one was actually thinking about them, and too much insecurity to believe that these hypothetical people could be thinking well of them.

My happiness, it could be argued, is largely tied to the fact that I assume the world has no idea I exist.

Centipedes don't bite me because God hates me, or because I'm unlucky. They bite because they're predators, and I didn't have gloves on. I ascribe malice to the centipede because I am creeped out by centipedes, but if I was stung by a bee, I wouldn't. I'd think "Damn, neither the bee or I came out of that encounter very well..." The car tire doesn't go flat because my life is shit, it goes flat because tires do that. My wait at the doctor is not long because I don't rate, it's long because they got slammed with fifty guys who's kidneys just exploded, and my piddly little pelvic floor muscle isn't gonna kill me in the next ten minutes. Things happen.

Thing is...

This is easy for me to believe because I am not religious. I can't say I don't believe in gods, because in a peculiar fashion, I sort of do. I would not, for all the tea in China, claim that my belief is based on any kind of proof or rationality, mind you, I would not try to convince anyone of my view. That sort of behavior I loathe. I am an evangelist for many things, Painter and China Mieville books among them, but I draw the line at gods.

Nevertheless, when I think of gods, I think of them much like they wound up getting portrayed in "Digger"--as sort of harried divine social workers. Beings who deal with things that need doing, who are...hmm, now that I think of it, overworked and making a good faith effort. And like receptionists and people at the doctor's office, I would be quite flattered if a god remembered my name, but frankly, I figure they're busy as hell.

And the thing is, I don't really need a god at the moment. There is nothing wrong with my life that I can't fix myself, or get someone to fix, or learn to live with. And so I have a feeling somewhere in my hindbrain that if I wandered in with the worship and the whining and the prayer, Ganesh or Anubis or Tauret or whatever deity I was hassling would look up, and fix me with tired elephant or jackal or hippopotamous eyes and say "What are you doing here? You're fine. Get a job."

And I'd deserve it.

But the thing is, that makes it easy for me. I don't believe in an omnipotent god running everything, who knows every minute detail of my existence. And that makes it pretty easy not to take everything personally. When your world view is basically that we're all in this together and nobody's in charge and we're all just trying our best and sometimes shit happens--well, it's easy to say "Shit just happened today," and shrug, and move on.

When you figure God's breathing down your neck, you almost gotta assume that everything's personal It's a personal world. When you figure that the gods are just like the rest of us--overworked and making a good faith effort--and that the world is basically a random, weird, frequently unfair place--I think maybe it makes it easier.

I can't speak to what makes other people happy. The other thing I know is that happiness is in some ways a skill, and some of us are good at it, and some of us aren't. I think it can probably be learned, but maybe, like singing, you gotta have something to work with before you can build on top that. I don't know. So this may only be a bit of personal navel-gazing of no use to anybody whatsoever.

But I think that's a lot of why I'm happy.

Let me see--so far this week, I've insulted barbecue and God. What do I do to round out the trifecta? The flag? Apple pie? Family values? (Mom gets a free pass, she reads the blog.)

*Holy crap, it just now occurred to me that Grandma was a Deep One. Dude. I was fine with the white trash bit, but green trash will take some adjustment!

...okay, I'm adjusted. Ia! Ganesh ftaghn!

**The odds are very good I'm not talking about you, so don't get paranoid, now. Also, in fairness, I've known a coulpa people who were just genuinely seriously unlucky. These things also happen, god knows...

You always seem to be able to get a really good reaction from me - usually by your unending way of looking at the world as a good place, but also very often because your sense of humor is absolutely amazing.

Like the last two words? Belly laugh-inducing. :)

Interestingly enough I am quite devoutly Christian, but I am happy with life for almost exactly the same reason. I don't tend to ascribe malice to anything, really. And I've always personally felt that sure, God may be up there and aware of my every move, but that He's not the least bit interested in interfering with my life. He saves that sort of behavior for special occasions, and I don't particularly need divine intervention in my daily affairs, so I'm not going to get it. And that doesn't bother me at all. I pray, now and then, in a sort of "look this is important to me, but if You think it's silly don't bother" kind of way sometimes, but generally I figure that I'm in charge of myself, so I had better just take care of things, and if I fuss at Him all the time for help I'm just going to get Him mad at me for being such a wuss. Or something like that... These things are surprisingly hard to put into words.

*grin* For some people, it may be the "breathing down the neck" aspect of divinity that's important as much as the "personal" bit, I grant you.

When you figure God's breathing down your neck, you almost gotta assume that everything's personal It's a personal world.

Strangely enough, that's not entirely true. I believe in God (well, my version, anyway), believe that he's keeping an eye on me, but still not take things personally. In fact, it is this faith which allows me to not get too bent out of shape at life in general, because I know the big guy's looking out for me, and that it will all turn out OK in the end. It has to, you see, because God won't let me down in the long run.

I think you're right about one thing, though, that being happy is a skill. I'm pretty certain anyone (assuming their brain chemisty isn't serious out of whack, and even then it's not hopeless) can learn it, if they want to, but some folks just don't see the benefit.

Let's see, what's the quote? "I know God won't give me anything I couldn't handle, I just wish He didn't trust me so much."

I've reached the point in my life where at any time when negative things happen to me, I break into hysterical laughter right before it becomes too much to bear. Honest, genuine bellhaching laughter, and then everything lifts. People need to laugh more.

You sound like a coyote....

Bad things occasionally happen to me, same as everyone and I occasionally get disgruntled or upset, but get over it. But every once and a while everything will go wrong and it will become ridiculous. I start laughing at each new disaster as every single little things blows up, breaks, gets lost, etc. For me, I describe them as Coyote days (the SW mythos Coyote that is).

I think American Football would be the real trifecta-rounder.

Me, I love it when they burn the effigies, I can generally sneak into the crowd and roast some marshmallows.

Oh, and because my kitten hit submit for me before I was ready....

Storytelling to turn pain into humor seems to fit big into my coping strategies. A lot of my friends as well. Turning stuff into jokes or trying to vent while making the audience laugh instead of rolling their eyes or wanting to avoid you... I think it's something more people should look into, perhaps.

I have a terrible history of taking everything personally. In part because of serious bullying as a kid, in part maybe because of a very schizophrenic Catholic upbringing and schooling. Not things like flat tires or waiting in lines- at least not anymore- but it certainly took a few decades for me to realize the "You're a bad person, you deserve being kicked in the teeth for being so unworthy of Heaven/God's Love." stuff I was edumicated in wore off.

These days while I'll say I'm quite spiritual, my view of *Religion* is only perhaps a tad more organized than a game of Calvinball. (If at all more organized).

Your grandma's outlook on things is admirable!! I'm glad that you also look at thigns the same way.

So many people run around screaming 'WHY ME WHY ME' And I never understood why honestly. Shit happens and you deal with it how you can, you have to remember as well..it honestly could have been worse.

I have to say I admire your outlook and your way of finding humor in damn near everything. Your sense of humor is truly a gift and one I am very glad you share with us ^.^


Why do they run around, screaming "Why me?! Why me?!" - maybe that's some outside influence's version of Jerry Springer.

Amen, sister. :) That's one of the more logical and concise definitions of, well, of this way of thinking/believing.

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In my pagan days I followed the path of the Smith God. You can't complain much to Someone who considers getting hit with sledgehammers continuously to be something normal.

Yep, that pretty much describes my attitude about religion.

People who are all whipped into a frothing, blazing frenzy of self importance NEED to feel like humanity in general (and thus, themselves in specific, as they are the very pinnacle of humanity) were created by some Divine Force. Which means they, in particular, are Divine, and that The Divine Force cares deeply about (and/or influences) their every bowel movement or lack thereof.

If there is a Divine Force, it's probably got a heckuva lot better things to do than piddle about with my pathetic mundane random life. I certainly hope so.

See, me? I'm just lazy. Being offended is WORK.

Gods are humanity's tech support.

Pfft! It's a good thing I wasn't drinking anything when I read that. Hee!

I see what you're saying, but I have always thought of it from another perspective. I figure it's the people who (for some reason) need to think that everything is personal who subscribe to the religious sects that teach that belief.

I was raised in an independent Christian church where I was taught that God cares, but that everyone in the world has free will. So when bad things happen, it's not happening to me particularly, it's just happening, either as a result of something I did or a result of someone else's actions. I was taught that while God can intercede, He usually doesn't do so.

Hmm, it's certainly possible that I'm putting the cart before the horse--the one may be a symptom, rather than a disease.

Problem, of course, being how you TELL... *grin*

Ah, the wisdom of grandmothers. Mine did not pass along any sort of patience with the world, but she did teach me to rely on myself and trust myself to accomplish whatever I set out to do. (This combined with genetic pigheadedness from my father's side of the family. Instead of waiting for shit to go away, I go "ARRRGH HULK SMASH" and then promptly set off to divert the nearest river into the stables. Sometimes I only manage a small creek but hey, it's something.)

It's a different approach, but I think it arrives at the same place. Gods do me favors once in a while, but I do what I can to look after myself, and if they don't have time for me one day, it's no biggie. Ultimately if I get rained on it's probably my fault for not going inside when it clouded over.

Heee communal navel-gazing!

I have gazed at my navel and seen the Lint of Glory!

Have you read anything by Lois McMaster Bujold? She has written three books in a fantasy universe (The Five Gods Universe, for want of a better term) which has a pantheon of Gods that I think you would enjoy. Very much doing the best they can with a very limited ability to actually intervene in anything. And their saints are so very put-upon. I want these gods to exist.

The books are Curse of Chalion, Paladin of Souls, and The Hallowed Hunt, and Paladin of Souls is one of my all time favourite books ever.


Catherine, who will not try to convert people to religion, but will certainly try to gain converts to Lois McMaster Bujold!

You do know that her new book Beguilement is coming out in October?

Shakatany fellow LMB fan

Some of this may also have to do with what social -- and, increasingly these days, urban -- creatures we are.

It always amazes me that people assume a happening is not just Stuff but the fault of some particular person or entity. I grew up on a farm. We regularly got the smackdown from random forces of nature... in small ways, in big ways, in highly expensive ways... and eventually, you just learn to deal with that shit. Sure, we cursed and flailed and attributed The Badness to gods, goddesses, the mistake of commenting on how well things were going, and global warming, but in our hearts we knew: it was Nothing Personal. It Just Happened.

This didn't stop us doing rain dances and deliberately leaving all the car windows down during the five-year drought, but still, we knew.

Whereas a lot of the city folk I know are genuinely shocked when something genuinely random and uncontrollable affects them, and their immediate response is to go looking for someone to blame. This is reasonable, in a way: nine-tenths of the Badness they encounter is caused by other people. It's just unhelpful.

Sadly, humanity is not good at stopping something just because it's ceased to be helpful.

That's an interesting point. I think it has to do with the fact that people in urban environments have lives that are heavily constrained and regulated. I remember when I first moved to Seattle and started hiking and rafting and things like that, and my mother (who spent her entire life in New York City) said, "Well, it's not dangerous, is it? They wouldn't let you do it if it were dangerous." A totally demented statement on some levels, but it makes a certain amount of sense if you grow up in a place where nature is completely constrained by rules about how to interact with it.

If you extend that attitude of some "They" who is in authority, you get the idea of a personal god as someone who "lets" or "doesn't let" you do things --sort of a divine Big Brother.

I have no idea if that theory holds any water, but I can see it.