Choosing Happy (Detour #9)

Okay, don’t stop to think about it, just pick an answer:

So how did you vote? Now, let me tell you a story:

My trip preparations are legendary, involving stacks of Rick Steves books, dozens of TripAdvisor searches, Excel spreadsheets, and hours of detailed research on the hotels we’ll stay at and the sights we’ll see. Once or twice I’ve put together itinerary brochures. Seriously. So I’m pretty darned sure I would have noticed if our Paris hotel had mentioned the possibility of a curfew. Are you already ahead of me in this story? Our daughter was twelve at the time, I think, and the three of us, Kelly and her father and I, were sleeping within walking distance of Notre Dame. Have you ever dined at a sidewalk café within sight of the cathedral’s flying buttresses? That’s what we did, paying ungodly prices for a few simple salads and maybe a sandwich or two, and watching the day’s light die against the cathedral’s ancient stone. The lamps along the Seine lit as the sky darkened, and they shined up into the leafy trees, bathing the landscape in a shimmering green. Needless to say, we lingered over our meal and it was late when we strolled back to our hotel.

Mother & Daughter at the Louvre
I love Paris in any season, because my love is near.
A relieved manager met us at the lobby door and locked it as soon as we’d entered, lecturing us a little on being out nearly an hour past his quitting time. He was supposed to lock up, he said, with all the guests snugly in bed by a certain hour of the evening. Or maybe we were supposed to have asked for an exterior key before we headed out for the evening, I never was sure exactly what he meant. All I know for certain is the only reason the three of us didn’t spend the night huddled together on the hotel’s front step is because a very kind young man put the needs of some clueless Americans above his own. I’m sure he would have been happier at home, where he probably had some graceful French woman pouring a glass of French wine for him and keeping a quiche warm in the oven. I’ve had real French quiche and good French wine, and they were both very happy things. He missed a bit of his happy for us. Merci beaucoup, mon ami.

If a bit of happy lost doesn’t sway you, then there’s a house in Amsterdam that holds two years of happiness gone. We’ve been there too, standing in Anne Frank’s rooms and imagining we were the Franks and those walls were our entire world, just as every other tourist does, but it isn’t the Franks who willingly gave up their safety and comfort—it was their protectors. In 1941, Miep Gies was in her thirties, a young married woman living a simple life as an office worker and trying to make do on the limited rations of wartime. Yet she took on so much more, scraping together black market rations to buy food for the Franks, shopping several times a day so she only had to carry one shopping bag—any more might draw suspicion—and risking arrest by scurrying through Amsterdam with the illicit supplies. The penalty of hiding Jews was death and Miep knew it. Her husband knew it. They could have been caught at any time and on the day the Nazis did come, Miep found a gun pointed in her face.

There are some who would have chosen their own skin over the lives of another family, who would have decided feeding themselves was enough

Miep Gies
Miep Gies, the protector of Anne Frank. Clap along if you feel like a room without a roof
of a burden when food was so hard to find. After all, they deserve to be happy, don’t they? Miep Gies gave an interview to Scholastic Website in 1997, and in it she said turning away from the Franks was never an option. “I could foresee many sleepless nights,” she said, “and an unhappy life if I refused. And that was not the kind of failure I wanted for myself. Permanent remorse about failing to do your human duty, in my opinion, can be worse than losing your life.”

So maybe Miep Gies did choose her happy when she decided to help the Franks. Maybe the Parisian hotel manager chose his when he refused to lock us out. The behaviorists will tell you none of it is a choice anyway, that we all do what we’re wired to do, that every missed feeding as an infant chips away a piece of our empathy and every kissed boo-boo puts a teeny bit back. Christopher Mcdougall had a fascinating article on heroism at nbc.com, in which he points out that roughly 80% of American heroes, those who risk their lives for others, come from small towns. Your neighbor is likely to be your cousin in a small town; everyone there is family by blood, love or shared history. It’s easy to put our needs above a stranger’s, but we like to think we wouldn’t choose our happiness at the expense of our family’s lives.

Arland Williams was a small town boy. When Air Florida Flight 90 plunged into the frozen Potomac in January 1982, Williams was one of only six people who made it to the icy surface, bobbing there with the others and no doubt watching the witnesses sprint to the river bank, trusting that rescue would come. Praying. And rescue did come, in the form of a helicopter with a lifeline dangling down. When Williams’s turn came to grab the line, he passed it off to flight attendant Kelly Duncan. He passed it off again when the helicopter returned with two lifelines. By the time the helicopter made one more pass, Williams had drowned.

Immediately after being plunged into freezing water, your lungs desperately suck in air and you hyperventilate for several minutes, and by the time that reaction calms, confusion is already setting in. You can’t think clearly and instincts take over. For Arland Williams, handing over those lifelines, saving others before himself, had to be pure instinct. It’s who he was. In my previous life, I was trained to hire salespeople who had just the right amount of kissed boo-boos, who came to us already primed to be great. The training taught that stress is the clarifying factor, that most of us can fake our way through a normal situation but under the crucible of stress we seek refuge in our core coping skills. We do what relieves the stress. We do what makes us happier, even if the degree of happier is infinitesimally small.

So I guess my answer to the survey is yes, we deserve to be happy. Maybe. I don’t know. Williams left behind a fifteen-year-old son and a fiancé—didn’t they deserve to be happy too? Didn’t our Parisian savior deserve to eat his quiche while it was still warm? Maybe this is one more place where I just get lost, where the route we’re supposed to follow to the right decision just gets too twisty. I don’t do well with twisty. I need a better map.

I wish you happiness, my friends. My family. But more than that, I wish you peace.

Questions? Comments? Detour Stories Of Your Own?

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