Tuesday, May 22, 2007

The Airport Parking Model of Happiness

The following is an essay I wrote and referenced in a February 2006 blog entry. After much delay and little revision, here it is.

We say “fine.” We’re a society of fine-rs. We pass someone we know-ish on the sidewalk between Meyer Library and Moonbean’s, and he, that guy from that one class with us, says, “How’s it going?” And we say fine. “Fine.” Even though, as it turns out, it maybe isn’t going so well. I mean, we got enough sleep last night, unusually, because we went to bed so early. Around midnight. (The internet was slow.) That’s fine. But we did just realize that we missed the deadline to sign up for those job interviews. We’ve decided to attend that national conference, which may be fun, but we just found out that the airplane tickets we bought but really couldn’t afford, we bought for the wrong weekend. This is not fine. And then, too, there’s that general sense of malaise that’s cast a dark and semi-permanent shadow over the general course of mirth in our lives ever since Alan went away. Alan. What a good cat.

I ask people sometimes why they say fine when I know that in reality they’re not feeling fine. That, in fact, they’ve just been crying to me, on me, about a heartbreak, about heart ache, about being so tired and feeling generally run over. Usually, good people justify this “fine” response because they believe that the “how’s it going?” person just meant well, just meant to say “hey,” and doesn’t actually want to know how it’s going. Doesn’t actually want to know about how sometimes life is specifically hard, here, in first person.

But (a) I think people do want to know those things, or at least, have a sense of them, of what the true state of our lives is like, even if they can’t change the situation or wait around to hear us tell them about it. If I know that the girl who sits next to me in constitutional law is having a hard day, then I can try to treat her tenderly, more tenderly than I might otherwise. Or at least, not make her find her own chair when I’ve stolen the only one left in the row. And (b) I think there’s a way to let people know how we’re feeling, how we’re really feeling, without overburdening them with the gross weight of our current emotional excess. This way relies on one of the first theories of daily living that I ever crafted. I call it the Airport Parking Model of Happiness.

There are at least three levels of human emotion (or happiness—it’s true this theory might be better called the Airport Parking Model of Emotion, but I was young when I named it and the name irrepressibly stuck). The three levels are long-term parking, short-term parking, and departures and arrivals.

The long-term parking level describes the general course of your life, how you’ve been feeling the last few months, years, decades, etc. If you’re clinically depressed, it’s depression on this level. If you’re chronically hyper, it’s an excess of energy on this level.

The short-term parking level describes how you’ve been feeling today, the last few days, the last few weeks. When people say, “How’s it going?” or “How YOU doin’?” they’re usually referring to your short-term parking level of emotion.

Departures and arrivals refers to how you’re feeling right now, this moment. You just ate a good orange, you stubbed your toe, that boy is cute, it’s stuffy in here, that joke was funny, etc. These moment-to-moment emotions quickly come and go (and sometimes circle around) like the cars coursing through the departures and arrivals lanes at the airport.

The theory is this: If we have at least three levels of emotions operating at all times, then we can (1) respond from any one of these levels, or (2) respond from multiple levels. I specifically advise the latter.

Let’s say I’m having a bad day—a really bad day—and someone unfortunately makes the proverbial “how’re you doing?” inquiry. In response, I can say, “You know, I’ll be honest. It’s been a bad day. But, this southwest chicken salad from Tresidder gets me every time. It’s so good.” Chances are, from my experience, that said questioner will laugh and nod and walk away. Then I can cry in my southwest chicken salad with peace of mind, knowing I’ve been true to the complexity of my experience while doing my part to share some of the human condition.

Or, if worse comes to worst, and you can’t bear to even mention the bad and true stuff of your current life to that guy from your class who says “how you doin'?”, change the status of a parking level. Take a moment and think of the pretty trees you're standing under and answer from departures and arrivals: "It's a seriously beautiful world." Remember that yesterday your roommate made you waffles, your mother sent you heart-shaped notes, and the prayer you said last night felt real and true and fine. You can say, from your short-term parking level, “You know what? Things have goodness about them.” Or, if you need to, if you can, buy yourself a new cat, pray yourself a testimony, and improve your long-term parking. Then you can say fine, fine, fine, as consistently as you like.

The world may not know the difference—may still you think you’re copping a copasetic fa├žade in the face of disaster—but you will. You’re telling the truth. And that should feel fine.