Misery Needs a Rule

When perusing a book last month by Dr. Henry Cloud, a Christian psychotherapist, I was struck by the following phrase.

“Misery Needs a Rule.”

I had been conveniently ignoring much of the book, which outlined all the cheery ways to create success. Frankly, I was rankled. I wasn’t in the mood to be all that optimistic, even though research shows that happier people live longer and are healthier overall. I figured that statistics aren’t everything. After all, my Grandfather Olaf lived to something like 93 and ate nothing but beef fat and the pecan rolls served at 5 a.m. with his coffee at the local café in Watford City, North Dakota.

The truth is that I was turning one of those non-admissible ages. Not only did I feel miserable, but I also wanted to feel miserable. My age? It’s now a creep away from cheap rates at the movies. Soon I’ll be perusing ads for hospitals offering free boxes of Depend-Alls for using their services. Already employing the latest in wrinkle-creams, I’d love to invent the Teflon variety that freezes me at “right now.” Better yet, how about a reducing cream that takes off the years? Just a few weeks ago my ten-year-old Gabe announced to the world (okay, his world, consisting of five animals, me, and the neighbor boy, Jacob) that I had “a lot of ruffles.” He meant wrinkles. I couldn’t help but ask if any of them had ridges yet.

“They” might immortalize age 50 as the “new 30” or even the “new 20,” but alas—I can’t join that crowd without putting my 21 year-old son back in diapers. No, I thought, as the fatal day approached, it’s better to simply feel miserable.

Misery is an interesting concept, besides being such a heavy-duty emotion. It actually means desolation, depression, and unhappiness. Webster compares it to a state of extreme poverty and squalor. Now I’m not a terribly desolate or depressed person. In fact, I’m usually pretty happy. I’m fortunate in that I live in a nice house and can pay my bills, so I’m obviously not poor. Long ago I decided that squalor is a state of mind, one not easily or necessarily ever achieved in one’s immediate environment, except for that enchanted hour following a housecleaning, which unfortunately, only exists if there are no life forms at home. Still and yet, “misery” can be compelling.

Such was my mood when reading all that lovely, heart-felt advice about giving your problems to God and opening to signs.

Personally I’ve never considered God a really good “Dear Abby.” When addressed, He seldom writes back in a timely manner and when sending signs, ends up offering more perturbing rather than reassuring news. Really. When you’re really down, what good is a response from the Above that basically says, “Keep going. It will be fine.” When my boyfriend says that I pull out my “Mars-Venus” manual and tell him he’s flunked. And His signs? Oh I’m sent them. I notice them. It’s just that I’m not terribly impressed by them. Here’s a rendition of my most recent omens:

• Am in a funk. Ask God what to do. Turn on the radio and listen to a song that talks about being a funk—offering no solutions, of course. How helpful.
• Am confused. Flip on a television show about—ta da! A confused woman—who is obviously going to remain confused for oh, at least ten episodes. (Situation similar to writing a letter to God that gets lost in the mail for duration of these ten episodes and a cliffhanger that keeps you dangling until the next season.) How helpful.
• Am sinking fast. A red robin lands on the car hood and stares at me as I’m zipping along. According to native tradition, robins are about rebirth. That’s great. Exactly which part of me is rebirthing? It certainly isn’t my aging body. Is this an indication of the need for plastic surgery or maybe just an early demise? Very helpful.

Given my mood—and the insensitivity of all things spiritual to it—I was actually surprised to glean a word of wisdom from Dr. Cloud’s book. I mean the misery was getting a little out of hand. And Dr. Cloud stepped to the plate and said, in a nutshell, you get to limit your involvement in the situations that cause you misery.

Wow! You mean I actually don’t have to talk for a whole hour on the phone to a family member whose sole (or maybe that’s “soul”) purpose seems to chastise me for oh, being alive—or allow myself to be asked for the fiftieth time (there’s another hint here as the to cause of my misery) by a so-called goodwill ambassador on the street if I’ve been saved?

Maybe I could establish parameters about how many times a week I have to clean the bathroom or criticize myself for all my latest mistakes? Perhaps I could attend that upcoming reunion for only five minutes—and skip that last four hours and fifty-five l-o-n-g hours and minutes?  Or maybe, just maybe, I could completely forgo cleaning the garage for an awesome trip to the beauty salon?

I hate to admit it but Dr. Cloud’s proposal had some merit. I’m not sure I approve all the implications, which an intelligent, conscientious person might package in idiom such as: “You can only be as miserable as you allow yourself to be”; or, “It’s your responsibility to stop your own misery.” Of course, these paraphrases relate only to the intelligent and conscientious. Others of us might simply summarize the lesson in this way:

“The cure for misery lies in one’s ability to refuse.”

I’ll leave it to you to decide what you want to refuse. I’m voting against aging.