Is Happiness a Choice- Guest Author Ben Wheeler-Floyd

 
Photo by
 Kevin Dooley

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     This past weekend, my wife and I drove home to attend the
wedding of an old friend. Afterward, we hung out with several of our high
school friends with whom we still have fond contact, sitting around a campfire.
One of them is a nurse at the Mayo Clinic. Another is a registered dietician. A
graphic designer. A high school teacher. My own wife, a university housing
professional.
            These
are, to my mind, real adult jobs. The kind of jobs that people make careers out
of, with salaries to buy houses with and raise children on. For others of us in
the group, however, obvious success is harder to quantify. As we let the fire
burn down, we exchanged stories about work. The graphic designer was bored. The
high school teacher was overstretched. The dietician was anxious about a new
client base.
            Whether
they were happy or not was difficult to tell. And yet, when asked where I was
working now, I was a little ashamed to tell them that I worked at a used book
store in Madison. Nothing about their responses triggered this feeling. I
shouldn
’t
have felt the need to hedge or qualify, but I nonetheless did. “It’s a job,” I
finally said, when the pause drew out. I made a s’more for something to do
while a few others poked at the fire with sticks.
            Why
that urge? Why that shame? I work in retail, in the entry-level position with
my company. I went to college. I went to graduate school. I
’ve taught at the
university level and have a degree that qualifies me to do so again. My friends
all know this. Many of them are in the positions that their schooling prepared
them for, but some are not. Yet, sitting in the circle with my friends, I could
not shake the feeling that I was not measuring up. That they were having a
conversation about their working life that I, in my current position, was not
qualified to participate in. Career-wise (and, by implication, life-wise), I
was at the kiddie table.
            Much
of this is in my own head. I realize that.
            I
like what I do. I
’m
good at it. I get to leave work at work when I punch out, allowing me time to
myself to write and pursue other interests. I tell myself that this is a good
thing, even a necessary thing.
            As
we prepared for the move to Madison, I applied for a technical writing job at a
large Madison company. Their compound has multiple
campuses. It’s basically a city.
The application process was rigorous, with at least four different stages. I
had to take aptitude tests. I had to let a stranger watch me through my web cam
while I took another test. After weeks of waiting, I was invited to Madison to
interview in person. They flew me out from Minnesota, put me up in a hotel,
bought me dinner. I interviewed all the next day, got excited about the job and
the company, then flew home and waited.
            The
idea of having that job was very attractive to me. Not so much for the work,
but because I would
have that job, with all
accomplishment that such a position implied. I got stoked. I felt adult.
            I
waited.
            And
waited.
            After
several weeks, I called them back. I talked to an answering machine. A few days
later, my HR contact called to tell me that they had
“decided to go in a  different direction.”
            By
that time I had resigned myself to not getting the job. If they had wanted me,
I would have heard by then. But still. Getting that call, hearing those words,
hurt in a weirdly personal way. It was more than them denying me a job. They
were denying me that feeling of adulthood and accomplishment.
            It
wasn
’t even
that I was excited by the job by then. When the afterglow of my theatrical
interview day wore off, I began to think that the job may not really be for me.
But I still wanted it.
            And
then I didn
’t
get it. It was a blow.
            I’ve been lucky with
jobs. I’ve gotten the majority of positions I’ve applied for, from my first job
at sixteen, all the way up to my teaching gig in graduate school. I guess I had
gotten used to that success, to defining myself in relation to that success.
            None
of the other jobs I applied for had netted any nibbles on my resum
é. I came to Madison
with nothing.
            I
was unemployed and miserable for a month. I felt like a drain on my wife
—not just financially,
but also emotionally. I was the absolute pits to be around. I felt rudderless,
hopeless, and, sadly, worthless. It sucked.
            I’ve told my wife before
that, if I could have any job that was not writing professionally, I would want
to work in a book store. And then, once I got a job at a book store a month
later, all I could think about was how I should want to do more. I should be a
nurse. Or a dietician. Or a high school teacher. A graphic designer. Something meaningful,
I guess. Whatever that means. It’s confusing.
            The
conflict comes down to this
—I don’t want any of the jobs my friends around that fire
have. I like my job. And in that moment, talking with them around the
fire, I felt ashamed for liking it.
            I
don
’t know
what force—be it external or internal—causes this feeling. That I should want
something more than what I actually want.
            And
yet that force is there. And I kind of hate it. I tell myself that I don
’t feel that way, but I
do.
            Every psycho-rational
construction has a dark sub-basement where doubt lives.
            I
can rationalize, I can tell myself every kind of affirmation and platitude, but
there is still that lingering suspicion that my friends on traditional career
paths are somehow more actualized, savvier, and
happier than I can be on mine.
That they’re living in some fundamental way that I am not, cannot.
            That
suspicion is total, total crap, but it
endures, fed by the sour waters seeping into that dark
sub-basement.
            My
wife tells me that happiness is a choice. I mostly believe her. But very
rarely, I think, do we make choices that leave us without doubt. No matter how
happy, how satisfied, how actualized, how at peace we appear on the outside, I
believe there is always that lingering sense that we could, even
should, be somehow other
than we are. And with that follows the counterintuitive guilt about not
wanting that at the same time.
            I
realized not long before we extinguished the fire and dispersed that my
friends, with their adult jobs and seemingly purposeful careers, are, in
significant ways, often unhappy.
            When
I tell my mother about this, she tells me,
“I’m fifty, and I still don’t have it figured
out.”
            Maybe
that
’s the
secret. No one has it really figured out. Not me, not my mother, not my
successful friends around the hissing remnants of that campfire.
            We
do our best, traveling through life, with some idea of where we
’re going, making do
with what we find along the way. That’s enough because it has to be. 

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Ben Wheeler-Floyd
is a bookseller and novelist. He holds at MFA from Minnesota State University,
Mankato. If you’d like, you can find him on Twitter at @benwheelerfloyd. He is
obsessed with space aliens (which totally exist), horror movies (which his wife
won’t go near), and Diet Pepsi (which is delicious). A Minnesota boy is whole
life, he is still coming to terms with the fact that he lives in Wisconsin now.
His story, “Snow Horses,” is forthcoming in Fiction Southeast.
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Comments
  • Mat

    This is spectacular, BWF, and also something with which I can completely identify. My 'I'm a useless human' lasted about a year after my expected job didn't happen and the following three to four also didn't happen. I'm floating somewhere in the space between "I'm enjoying what I'm doing," "Why am I not doing what I'm trained for?," and "I should probably be enjoying doing something better." Fortunately, those around me don't let me beat myself up about it. I'm reminded what Herbach and Joseph said: 40 is still a young writer. To a degree, knowing our place in the world is pretty similar. New body every ten years and life being an ever-moving journey and other platitudes that are increasingly accurate. I am glad that you can find (or choose) that happiness and that you have a rockin' wife who is capable of beating your brain when you need it. (I think that's another important part of that being happy thing.)