A Final Thought: Happiness Is An Empty Soup Can


By Mitch Allen

If you’re a regular reader of this column, let me recommend a couple of more: My wife recently introduced me to Sean Dietrich’s “Sean of the South” blog. He writes about Southern culture in a way where you always expect him to mention the Cracker Barrel or the Piggly Wiggly. Everything he writes is gentle and touching, and he often brings a tear to my eye.

I don’t know how old Sean is, but he must be relatively young. He mentioned recently that his 7th grade teacher once confiscated all the students’ cell phones. I don’t know about you, but in the 7th grade we were still writing notes with a sharp stick called a pencil and passing them under our desks.

Then there’s Garrison Keillor’s email column called “Garrison and Friends.” Conversely, he writes about growing up in rural Minnesota, living in New York City, and being an old man who’s finally turned over all of the world’s problems to the next generation—to people like Sean Dietrich. I sometimes wonder if the two don’t read each other’s work. In recent columns, they both mentioned independently that happiness comes from “not wanting anything.”

I’m not so sure about that. I’m not sure a human can give up wanting things. We’re pretty much desire wrapped in skin. While our longings may soften over the years from, say, a new Harley-Davidson to a new easy chair, we still want that chair.

I think happiness is more related to forgiveness, forgiving others but also ourselves. Desiring a Harley and not being able to have one—or even buying one and crashing it—does not make us miserable. What makes us miserable is failing to forgive ourselves for the utter folly of it all.

Bear with me, but I think happiness is like an empty soup can. Bad stuff—pain, hurt, envy, disappointment, betrayal, all of it—goes in the top of the can and you eventually fill up with misery if you don’t let some of it out. Unfortunately, the soup can must remain upright. We can’t simply tip our lives over and pour it all out. Instead, we have to forgive, and we do that by poking holes in the bottom of the can with an ice pick, which allows the hurt to slip out.

I call these openings “forgiveness holes” and the more of them you poke in the bottom of your soup can, the easier you forgive others and the faster you heal. Some hurt is big—really big—and it takes a long time for a big hurt to work its way out through a small hole. This is why you should make the holes as wide as you can.

I’ll be 60 years old in a few months and I used to work myself silly poking holes in my soup can until one day when I finally put down the ice pick and picked up the can opener—and just cut out the entire bottom of the can.

It’s not even a can anymore.

It’s a tube.

Anger, hurt, resentment, disappointment don’t have time to collect in my soup can. They just fall right on through.

Whoosh. Instant forgiveness.

Removing the entire bottom of our soup can—that is, creating a single infinite forgiveness hole—isn’t easy. It requires us first to forgive ourselves even when the pain is completely someone else’s fault. That’s because we sometimes blame ourselves for having allowed the hurt to happen in the first place, even when we were not in a position at the time to stop it. I used to think the most powerful words in the universe were: “There is nothing you could ever do to make me stop loving you.” But now I think these words may be even more powerful: “It’s not your fault.”

Don’t get me wrong. Removing the entire bottom of your soup can is not something you do only once. You have to work at it constantly. Self-doubt is relentless; it’s always creeping back in to reweld the bottom of that can. Sometimes the best we can do is break out the ice pick.

It helps to remember that what other people think of us is none of our concern, but what we think of ourselves is pretty dadgum important. We become kinder to others when we become kinder to ourselves.

There, I said what I had to say and I didn’t even mention the Cracker Barrel or the Piggly Wiggly, let alone the Waffle House.

Well, I guess I just did.

But I forgive me.


Categories: Smart Living