by Mina Simhai
In A Short Course in Happiness After Loss (and Other Dark Difficult Times), beloved WBI teacher and master storyteller Maria Sirois offers us a compassionate way to be with the pain of loss, and opens the door to finding contentment and, eventually, even joy, in its aftermath.
Maria guides us through this challenging terrain with wisdom, grace, and raw honesty. In the process, she offers us hope, reminding us that “this too shall pass,” and teaches us tools for coming alive again after the exquisite pain subsides.
Where’s the White Horse?
“I am the one I’m waiting for,” Maria writes. Those words bring me back to 2002. Three close friends scattered to the wind. We graduated from school, each landing jobs in different cities. Like many before us, we experienced a rite of passage: setting up our first “grown-up” apartments.
We each had a different way of approaching the challenges of hanging up our pictures, building our IKEA furniture, and getting our awkwardly shaped furnishings through the door. I admired my friend moving to L.A., who embodied the phrase, “I am the one I’m waiting for.” She bought herself a power drill, rolled up her sleeves, and happily set up her new apartment, empowered by her drill and her self-sufficiency.
Another friend made DC her home. She, too, bought herself some tools (a hammer and screwdriver) and proceeded to hang pictures and make the apartment home on her own. However, her experience was different. She wished she had a boyfriend to help her, wondering, in the words of Maria, “Where the hell is that white horse?” For her, the experience of setting up her first adult apartment was tinged with disappointment. She didn’t want to be doing it alone, and it felt more like defeat than inner strength.
As for me, I imagined myself to be like my empowered friend in L.A., but sheepishly admitted to my friends that my boyfriend did most of the apartment setup for me—certainly all the parts involving tools or wires.
Why does it matter? It matters because we can become self-authoring and authentic only when we realize that “I am the one I ‘m waiting for.” We stop waiting for permission from others to live our lives, to make difficult choices, and to buy power tools. If we expect someone to come rescue us, we are at their mercy. We give away our power. We can feel tossed about like a tumbleweed in the wind. In order to be resilient, we must be strong enough to go it alone, even if we are fortunate enough to have support.
That boyfriend who set up my apartment became my husband. He still rescues me from time to time (more often than I care to admit), and I am also learning that I am the one I’m waiting for. I take my own computer to the Apple store when it’s acting up, and enjoy being the one responsible for maintenance on my car. With these small steps, I teach myself, “I’ve got this.” I can handle the vicissitudes of life. This knowledge is the basis for resilience.
Maria reminds us that fear is natural, especially when we realize that “our losses are not protective; one great big tragedy does not insure us from others.” She also reminds us that “nothing grows in states of fear.” So fear is part of life, and fear sucks. To move beyond this fear, Maria teaches us that the first step is to “accept that we are afraid and offer ourselves tender self-compassion.”
This Buddhist approach to fear is revolutionary for me. Maria offers very different advice than many of us received growing up. I had learned to say, “I’m not scared,” to shove my fear so far down that no one could see it, and instead present an image of poise and competence. I thought being brave meant not feeling fear. Further, there was probably something wrong with me because I was afraid. The more I tried to stomp on my fear—hoping that, if I just jumped hard enough, if I shoved it under a big-enough rock, it would stop bothering me—the more it kept rearing its ugly head when I Ieast expected it.
So I work on Maria’s first step, accepting the fear. This doesn’t mean I like fear, it just means I stop running away from it. Maybe, eventually, I can learn to see fear as a messenger or guide, as Maria suggests. For now, it is enough to realize that fear can simply be, as she writes, “one of many experiences of living; not the predominant experience, not the one that need define our life.”
Heaven Within Hell
In the second half of the book, Maria offers positive psychology wisdom that can help us lean towards joy amidst the pain. This truly is the art of living. The pain is real. It won’t magically disappear. Yet we can still make choices, every day, that shift us towards joy. We can choose to see the Heaven within Hell.
I learned to do this when we celebrated my daughter’s first Christmas in the hospital, alongside my parents, brother, and nephew, as my dad recuperated from unanticipated back surgery. Munching on lukewarm Chinese food, I felt my heart fill as I looked into the eyes of the others, also in the waiting room, visiting sick loved ones. Compassion rose within me, and I was glad that the delight of my daughter’s smile could offer these strangers a momentary break from their struggles. I felt touched by deep gratitude that Christmas—gratitude that I was with my family, that we were all alive, and that the sweetest blessing of my life was on my knee, snug in my arms.
That profound sense of thankfulness has been elusive on subsequent “easy” Christmases, tucked into a warm, cozy house, with more presents than we need, and a delicious dinner in the oven. Sometimes the contrast with Hell can make the Heavenly moments more poignant.
Mina Simhai earned her Certificate in Positive Psychology from the Wholebeing Institute, and served as a teaching assistant for CiPP4. She is also a recovering lawyer, yoga teacher and mother. Her latest project is bringing the tools of positive psychology to lawyers and others in the DC area and across the country. Her top strengths are judgment, love of learning, curiosity, love, and appreciation of beauty. Mina is an avid reader and looks forward to launching the WBI Book Club with you.