The first time I notice that I am no longer taller than my youngest brother, we are lying on our backs on his twin bed. His feet dangle off; mine do not. I am leaving for a six-month sojourn in Europe the next morning and I’ve agreed to tuck him in as a goodbye. My middle brother, 17, is spending his junior year of high school in Poland. By this time tomorrow, both of this brother’s siblings will live abroad, and the house will be twice as hollow.
He’s 13. He doesn’t realize that many college students spend time studying abroad. He doesn’t understand why I want to leave our modest suburbia, just an hour from Cornell, and travel to the other side of the world for a semester of wining, dining and train riding – a place where I know neither the language nor the people. He tells me, tearful, that he doesn’t think he’ll be happy until we’re home again.
I ponder how to best comfort my brother, to find a way to fill him up even as our house empties. I explain to him that his happiness does not live inside other people; it’s generated internally. I tell him he doesn’t need to cling to us like life rafts. I tell him that we make our own fairy tales, and we write our own happy endings. He doesn’t like that answer — as a middle schooler, it’s hard for him to see an abstract picture. It’s hard for him to see how short this time apart will be, compared to the span of life. But then again, do we ever really understand something until we learn it firsthand?
Not to be deterred, I try to illustrate this idea in language that he’ll relate to. “Do you feel happy when you play the drums?” I ask. I know how I feel when he plays (can the Martians hear him?) but I’m hoping the question inspires a different reaction from him. “Sometimes,” he tells me, “but not always.” I reply that lots of people don’t always know how to create their own happiness, and that it takes a long time to figure out. I tell my brother that if you don’t know how to make yourself happy, you spend lots of time trying new things until you find it.
“That’s what you can do until we’re home,” I propose.
This seems like a basic idea, but here’s why it bears repeating: it’s easy only on paper. Many people spend their whole lives bouncing from one temporary source of light to the next, never learning to generate their own joy continuously. It’s an effort; a daily exercise in understanding fulfillment. For some people, happiness depends on constant change: travel, a carousel of significant others, new workouts. For others, namely my mother, routine is the cornerstone of fulfillment. Me, I get stuck on happiness a lot. My current plan involves finding something I can practice enduringly. Often, that’s writing. Regardless of whether I am any good at my hobby of choice, it does the trick.
On the plane, I watch as people practice happiness in their own way. An Asian man and his wife do the crossword puzzle together from the day’s Times. A child is mesmerized by an episode of The Berenstain Bears. The man in the seat across the aisle works his way through four beers. Even over the deafening drone of the engines, there is so much noise around us. There is always noise. In the morning, I listen to my Spotify as I choose my outfit. The radio plays in the car. My phone flashes with notifications, people talk and chew and laugh around me, a football game is on in the background. I am afraid of spending too much time indulging in the noise of social media; it’s too easy to watch other people living and forget that you are. We humans seem to have a gift for creating this loudness around us. We’ve become so accustomed to the chaos we don’t know how to think without distraction. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying the bustle of life. But I think what we enjoy most is what we do when the noise goes away.
Dragging my luggage through my Amsterdam layover, I am on high alert, paying attention to every poster and passerby. We spend most of our lives in the familiar, but sometimes I think we live more in the foreign. In this foreign land, I will be consumed with the noise of a new place – there will be a city to explore and lots of beautiful things at which to look. But I will still rely on the ways I’ve taught myself to be happy on my own, far away from the people whose company I cherish. The things I do for myself and not for my self-image. The things I love.
Ruth Weissmann is a junior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. A Word to the Weiss appears alternate Fridays this semester.