changing direction

Life rarely goes exactly to plan. When I was young there was a time when I really thought that I wanted to be a bin man because I loved the colour yellow. I’d gaze out of the window of my grandma’s first floor flat at the refuse collectors’ high visibility jackets and think, That could be me one day.

Then I started school and my plan took a change of direction. My once sartorial ambitions (I had no real interest in waste management as such) turned historical; I just couldn’t get enough of dead kings and queens, mummified corpses and monuments built to honour or house the deceased. I binned the idea of cleaning the streets and dug out a trowel; I decided that the only option for me was to become an archaeologist.

Unlike my desire to illuminate my life through fluorescent colours, my passion for history never became a thing of the past. To this day I’m rarely more content than when surrounded by rubble and ruins. And yet the plan changed again and I left another ambition unfulfilled. Once more it became apparent that apparel would play a disproportionately significant role in my final career choice.

‘I’ve decided I can’t be an archaeologist after all,’ I explained to my parents, ‘I look ridiculous in tank tops and from the research I’ve done they appear to be compulsory.’ Oddly, for someone who ended up with pretty average A-level grades, having to have an Oxbridge degree didn’t seem to factor as the major barrier to my potential success. 

I turned to my teachers for their guidance on my next step but found myself disappointed in the careers advice offered – it came from all the wrong people and focussed on all the wrong things. Rather than being built around what I wanted from life, it was all about what subjects I could pass as at teenager and how they could be applied to the limited pool of roles that careers advisors knew anything about back then. A list of job titles I had no interest in emerged with none of the detail that really mattered: how much money I might earn, how hard I was likely to have to work or God-awful the experience might be, how likely it’d be that I’d feel fulfilled, whether my personality (and not just grades) would fit, whether I’d have time to see friends and start a family, or even what clothes I might have to wear. How was I meant to know what to do without that detail?

When I turned my attention to PR at sixteen, not one of the careers advisors I spoke to knew the first thing about it. But since I did in fact appear to a member of the public and had experienced ‘relations’, when the school bell rang – signalling the availability of tea and cake in the staff room – my teacher gave me her stamp of approval and made a sharp exit.

Whatever! I’m only doing it so I don’t have to wear a suit for workI thought. 

Although I made up my own mind about my future, I now find myself wondering how my teachers might have reacted if I’d stuck with my original impulsive desire to simply wear yellow. Depending on the person dishing out the advice, my brief could have seen them point me towards refuse collection (my first choice), artistic pursuits (‘He sees the world so differently,’ I imagine them saying. ‘What a guy!’) or – and more likely – the door. ‘You’re nothing but an obtuse, time-wasting teenager,’ I hear them cry, ‘and you don’t appear to understand the importance of early-life decisions.’

John Lennon famously once said, ‘When I was five years old, my mother always told me that happiness was the key to life. When I went to school, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wrote down ‘happy’. They told me I didn’t understand the assignment, and I told them they didn’t understand life.’

These days, it’s how many of us would answer the same question. But, again, life doesn’t always go to plan. 

Having been once so completely happy and then suddenly so desperately sad, I now realise that striving to become happy in the way that a medical student becomes a doctor is really quite an unrealistic goal. Striving for happiness alone, I believe, serves only to make us want more. The bar moves and the quest for happiness becomes a search for even more fulfilling, yet often fleeting, thrills. When the adrenalin rush of the thrill wears off, we’re often back to where we started – in a void seeking to satisfy our increasingly unquenchable thirst for contentment.

And what happens when happiness is our only measure of fulfilment in life and then catastrophe comes along and creates chaos with our plan? Have we then failed? Are our lives over? Is it impossible to shift focus just because we made our minds up about what we wanted to do with the rest of our lives at a time when we’d barely started living them? I increasingly think not.

And that’s because life presents new challenges and opportunities all the time. Sometimes the plan that we once thought we were in control of gets changed for us; sometimes we lose control and, quite simply, there is nothing we can do to get it back on track.

Perhaps we can change direction, though. Maybe, in the moments when we find ourselves with the energy and clarity of thought we need, we can take time to learn lessons from life; we can take a moment to consider what’s really going on.

I’ve done a lot of thinking lately and I’ve acknowledged that my life will never be the same as it once was. It’s become clear to me that I will waste what precious time I have on earth if I spend all of it trying to be the same sort of happy that I once was. I’ve experienced (and still do experience) such agony that I now accept that pain will always have a role in my life. Naivety has gone, innocence is lost, assumptions are out the window, and my juvenile expectations of privileged life are a thing of the past. In short, my life hasn’t gone to plan.

So, from now on my plan is not to have a one. I’m going to take the pressure off myself by pursuing more than just happiness. My goal now is to have an interesting life, instead. I’ve realised that if I get bored I can do something about it, but I don’t buy into the marginalising idea of simply ‘thinking myself happy’. I now know my own mind well enough to understand that I cannot contrive contentment.

This change of direction means that I’m going to work with life and not against it, because, honestly, isn’t life naturally more interesting than it is happy, anyway? I believe that it’ll be opportunity, not joy, that knocks.

And while I’ve found it hard to acknowledge many of life’s positives since my wife’s death, I’m pleased to say that, so far, I’m doing quite well at achieving ‘interesting’ – much better than I’m doing at ‘happy’, in fact. Since ditching happiness as my main goal in life, life has rewarded me with a series of fascinating pursuits.

From today I can call myself an author if I wish. A book I’ve written in fertile response to the void left by my wife’s futile death has now been published. It was never part of the plan, though. I had no aspirations of being a writer (I hadn’t even bothered to explore what they wore), and yet suddenly I officially am one.

But I was also suddenly officially a widower; I was suddenly officially a sole parent, too. I suddenly didn’t care about the career that I had and my seemingly boundless state of happiness suddenly officially became mournful instead. 

Before my wife died I thought I was officially complete, but now I realise that perhaps no one ever truly is. And if we ever were, I think that human nature dictates that we’d probably still want more, anyway.

So I could call myself a PR consultant, a writer, a blogger, an author or a freelance journalist. I could label myself as ‘occasionally happy’ or ‘frequently sad’. I could aim to one day be ‘complete’ or accept that being a work in progress might make my life more compelling and my ambitions more attainable.

Whatever the case, right now I only care about one label and that’s ‘Daddy’. Whatever else life has to offer can make its way to me because I’m too exhausted to keep chasing it down. There will be lots of emotions felt along the way, but I’m pretty sure I’ll be less disappointed with whatever happens next in my life if I strive to make it stimulating and stop being so hung up about attempting to go through life in a state of constant happiness. After all, who really does anyway?

My book – It’s Not Raining, Daddy, It’s Happy – is available in book shops and to order online now.


14 replies on “changing direction”

you are absolutely bloody amazing. that’s another label you can slap on yourself right now.
and i have no idea how you do it, but you always seem to write what i’m thinking or facing at the same time. i said just last night to my housemates that because i now have such a depth of perspective on things i never had before paul left this world, that for the very first time i am relaxed about ‘just being’, not getting wound up about the small stuff, and not actively seeking happiness, just being and letting it be. and in ‘just being’, i now find that i can begin to finally relate to what happiness actually is.
keep it going x

This is brilliant and you’re absolutely right. I haven’t tried to be happy for about 3 years – now I focus on being content with all I have (which I’ve come to realize is a lot) but I still strive for more because it goes against my nature to just sit and wait. Everybody hurts and heals and life changes in ways we could not have imagined and we become versions of ourselves we never thought we would be. All the best,

I really liked the line in the movie “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”, :
“It’ll be alright in the end. And if it’s not alright, it’s not the end yet.”

The books about just Thinking Positively can be simplistic and tyrannous, and can make you feel worse…but even in the darkest times, moments of simple joy can lift the heart and give you strength.x

Wonderful ideas, you are so right. Since having cancer, I’ve followed the philosophy of ‘Right here, right now, I’m OK’ OK is great sometimes. Keep on looking for the interesting things.

Hello. I’m a young widow with a young child. While I can’t claim to understand the specific situation you’re in, I think I understand the basic shape of the void.
One of the things I meditate on is the idea of happy vs. content. Happy is sort of a surge of a single emotion to me, contentment is a stillness in a sphere of a balanced life. I no longer strive for happy, but I am now proud to say I am once again content. Best to you, Lizz R.

” I will waste what precious time I have on earth if I spend all of it trying to be the same sort of happy that I once was”
Fantastic insight. I had a similar revelation. Weirdly painful and freeing.

Although I’m neither a parent, nor a widow, your words resonate deep within. Your blog and writing is extremely moving and you have a way of expressing beautiful and heartfelt emotions. I look forward to reading more of your posts and following your and yours sons journey. Mo (South Africa)

I think there is a difference between joy and happiness. I experience joy even in the middle of sadness. You put into words so clearly all the jumbled up thoughts in my head thank you. You were so clear in all you said on tv today. I am praying for you and your son that you will find a path of peace

Hi ben I left a comment on here on the 8th of May, sorry i was in a bit of a mess and didnt make much sense.i have had time to rethink my posting .as I said in my first posting , I was really shocked by the recent death of peaches geldof, and really understand what bob geldof and family are going through as my son died the same way. Not forgetting yourself in this I really feel for you. Im going to say goodbye to my son on the 16th of may so its all very much current for me hence the short text previously but I would like to say again im sure in time we all will learn to deal with out losses and remember the good times. Thanks for the opportunity to express myself to both yourself(ben) and loose women

Truly an amazing person – hope your blog goes on and on love hearing yours and Jacksons journey, and your wife sounds wonderful. Its clear to see how in love the two of you were…..and still are. Wishing you and Jackson loads of love and best wishes as you continue your life together x

While the death of your wife is and continue to be very agonising to live with, it brought out the writer in you which was hidden within you. You have a way of presenting your reflections only you can do, challenging your readers to think through for themselves about really important issues. Like Joanne I would hope that you will continue to blog. I for one look forward so much to be reading your blogs as they provoke me to arears I may have over looked. You have given me another way of looking at life. I like the idea of aiming to have ‘an interesting life’ than pursuing happiness that is food for thought.

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