Guest Post by Fabiola Zamora: “The Silver Lining”
Please enjoy this profound essay on happiness by my former student, Fabiola Zamora. This essay inspired and helped me, and I hope you will have the same experience.
I wholeheartedly believe that happiness is a choice, despite the body, the family, or the external circumstances that we may have been born into. We may not have chosen the life that we were dealt, but it’s entirely up to make the best of each and every single second of it. I like to view my life as the prime example of making the best out of a less than ideal situation. My childhood consisted of many back-to-back traumatic experiences, from poverty, bullying, witnessing cartel violence, having a caregiver who regularly endangered us, to being unknowingly tricked into boarding a plane at the age of 5, permanently leaving behind my home-country as well as everybody and everything that I had ever known and loved. Only to arrive in the US and have my life become significantly worse, one version of hell just morphed into another. My first 16 years of life were brutal, and the fact that I never had any emotionally available adults around me to offer me any kind of solace, only made things worse.
But despite everything, I refused to view myself as the victim of my story and decided to flip the script. I chose to view every single unpleasant experience that I ever had as nothing more than challenges that were necessary for my own growth and evolution. Similar to words of the Dalai Lama, “Whether we are feeling happy or unhappy at any given moment often has very little to do with our absolute conditions but, rather it is a function of how we perceive our situation, how satisfied we are with what we have.“ And Instead of allowing myself to become bitter about the fact that 99 percent of the people around me had a significantly easier life experience than me, I chose to get better and transmute my own pain into power.
Life had a silly way of permanently humbling me at an early age, so much so that I never even had the luxury of comparing myself with anybody because I had always had notably less than everybody else, in all areas. And because happiness was such a rare emotion for me to feel, any little bit of joy or satisfaction that I could draw from my life, I learned to cherish and protect it like my life depended on it, and it worked wonders for me. My ability to find the silver lining in every situation became my superpower, my mind learned to make the best out of some of the most unfortunate situations and circumstances, alchemize these experiences into something positive through the power of gratitude. But I am human after all, and as I neared adulthood, the urge to compare myself naturally creeped up on me, even though deep down I knew that comparison would never be of any real benefit to me or anybody else, just as Dalai Lama said, “constant comparison with those who are smarter, more beautiful, or more successful than ourselves, also tends to breed envy, frustration and unhappiness.“ (23) And that phrase holds so much truth, comparison was in fact the number one killer of my happiness. I knew it was unfair to try and compare myself with neurotypicals whom always had the safety, the support, and the resources necessary to help direct their energy into developing a healthy self-concepts and personality in which they could thrive and navigate through the world with ease. While I on the other hand had spent much of my life in survival mode, living with a chronically dysregulated nervous system and extremely limited opportunity. Realizing how illogical it was to try and compare myself with others, I made a vow to myself to never compare myself again, no matter how “behind in life“ others tried to make to feel. I understood that every single person comes from a completely different background, and a different upbringing, with their own unique set of skills, core-values, self-concepts, goals/ambitions, challenges, and opportunities, as well as subconscious beliefs about what is in fact possible for them. This understanding completely melted away all the shame that I had been carrying about who I have been, and how long it is taking me to embody who it is that I want to become.
And while it is true that both our physical health and our psychological health are huge factors in our overall happiness, I find that in today’s society, once a person is diagnosed with a physical or psychological ailment, they become convinced that the said illness will forever negatively impact their overall level of happiness, as if it were a life sentence to a future full of discomfort and misery. I always rejected the idea that I was bound to live a life riddled with challenges, for any reason, especially for reasons that were completely out of my control, whether they were internal or external. For example, I may not have chosen to come to this country in the first place, nor did I choose to have my brain chemistry permanently altered at such a young age. But as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi said, “More often than not, time stress is an excuse for not taking control of one’s life.” And sure, I may not have chosen to have an atypical brain, or an unconventional life, but I took full responsibility in learning to use it to my advantage. I spent about five years of my life in “hermit mode” or intentional isolation, attempting to create some level of harmony and control, in my then chaotic adolescent mind. I went to CBT therapy for 3+ years, I tried exposure therapy, read several self-help books, studied different philosophies, learned the language of astrology, dabbled in numerology, listened to hours and hours of lectures from well recognized psychologists, neurologists, as well as hypnotherapists. I cleaned up my diet, fasted, and meditated for countless hours, all while journaling hundreds of self-reflection pages, exploring the depths of my subconscious mind, and slowly but surely, I began to bridge the dissonance between my conscious and unconscious.
When I first embarked on this journey toward inner happiness, I was not sure that it would ever bring me the fulfillment I hoped it would, I was not sure my eureka moment would ever come. And because every single other person in my age group was preparing to venture out into the adult world, to start their education and go after their dreams, completely isolating myself from the world felt a lot like I was going backwards. I received tons of criticism for the decisions that I was making with my life, and I was forced to let go of many unhealthy relationships that were no longer resonating with the person I was becoming. I had to let go of tons of unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as doomscrolling, compulsive eating, excessive sleeping/avoidance, etc. And every time I felt as if I were about to make a breakthrough, something would come up and throw me completely off track. Confronting my subconscious mind was an extremely long, uncomfortable, and tedious process, and on multiple occasions I considered completely giving up altogether. While every other person my age was out, making money, buying nice things, dating, partying, making memories with friends, and chasing external happiness, I was at home, feeling like I was out of my mind for even choosing to live in such an extreme manner. But I very quickly learned to accept that my road to happiness was going to look a little different than everybody else’s. As Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi said, “In terms of the bottom line of one’s life, it is always better to do something one feels good about than something that may make us materially comfortable but emotionally miserable.” So, I did just that, I tuned out the outside noise and went within. And sure, I may not have accumulated nearly as much material wealth as every other person my age did in the past five years, and delving into the depths of my mind may not have solved all of my “real world problems,” or even all of my internal problems at that. But the level of peace, acceptance, and strength that I have managed to cultivate in mind will forever outweigh any amount of material wealth that I imagine I could have ever accumulated, and nobody can ever take that from me.
Accepting that the recipe to happiness is not one-size fits all, dismantled any judgment I had been placing on myself and anyone else for how we may choose to seek joy. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, said, “The findings of science makes us increasingly aware of how unique each person is.” And it couldn’t be more true, I feel like we live in a society where we are for the most part conditioned to believe that in order to achieve happiness, we must “be this far into our career by a certain age, make X amount of money, own a large house, marry a specific kind of partner, have X amount of kids.“ But the truth Is, this cookie cutter version of experiencing life is just not for everybody. One person’s version of happiness might be to be a stay-at-home wife, and raise 11 children, while another’s may be to not have any children at all. One person’s version of happiness may be to donate all of their life’s earnings to a cause, while another person’s may be to amass billions of dollars for their future generations, and none of them are wrong. I feel like as long as a person isn’t going out of their way to deliberately harm themselves or others, then they are entitled to pursue happiness in the way that they best see fit. In the words of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. “Thus each of us is responsible for one particular point in space and time in which our body and mind forms a link within the total network of existence.” It is entirely up to us to take accountability for the direction in which our own life is going and stop feeling like the victims of our reality. It’s also imperative to make the time necessary to address who it is that we are and what It is that we want from life, in order to make the best out of the finite time that we have on this earthly realm. Nobody chooses the kind of life or family that they will be born into, or the limiting beliefs that they will have projected into their subconscious minds as children, but it is still our responsibility to identify these adopted, negative self-concepts and weed them out. In the process, revealing our most authentic and powerful selves, unlocking the version of us that we were originally meant to be before our loved ones, and societal programming, told us who to be.
I like to think of myself as proof that even the most miserable person can reach an unshakable level of happiness and contentment by simply shifting their outlook on life. Instead of choosing to see my difficult life experiences as things that were happening to me, I started to view them as things that were happening for me, and that completely changed my life. Nothing about my experience has been easy for me, yet I still consider myself to be an incredibly lucky person and would never consider trading my life for anybody else’s, even if given the choice. As Buddhist monk, Khedrupchen Rinpoche said, “At the end of the day, I learned to be happy with what I have and make the best of it.” And we must do just that, learn to be content with the life that we have while working toward the life that we want.