It’s the 1960s in Ashwood, an outer suburb of Melbourne. Weatherboard house on a dirt road. Nearby are paddocks agisting horses, and with ponds full of tadpoles. My sisters and I had good, responsible, loving parents, although they argued ferociously, and often.
Well, Mum did.
An argument would take hours to brew. We could see the change in Mum: the lapses into silence, the snide remark at Dad, the grumpiness . . . It was like watching a thunderstorm approach. Finally, the storm would break with Mum’s thunder and her torrent of tears.
Dad just sat there and took it. Neither parent was physically violent, but Dad didn’t know how to respond to the abuse and accusations he received. When he spoke he was shouted down, and when he silently accepted the abuse Mum only became more heated.
The arguments were mainly about Dad’s mother.
The storm would last for two or three days, and then the sun would rise. But we kids were always alert for signs of the next big argument, in the hope that we could somehow, in some way, prevent it.
I was a conscientious, well behaved boy who struggled with school work. Looking back I can see I was always anxious: anxious of being asked a question by the teacher, of falling further behind in my assignments, of looking stupid, of being in trouble because I didn’t do my homework, of having to repeat a year, of Mum raging again . . . Anxious in general.
I didn’t know I was anxious at the time. I had nothing to compare it with.
The years of unrelenting skin-itching eczema didn’t help. Nor did the unceasing hay-fever that made my nose constantly run. I would leave school at lunchtime to go home and change my four sodden handkerchiefs. I’d have to change them again when I got home from school.
Bouts of asthma gave me regular reprieves from the anxiety of school, brought on if I laughed too heartily, chased a football too earnestly, or for reasons never discerned. Asthma and its bronchitis kept me in bed for two or three weeks at a time. When I returned to school I was even further behind in my schoolwork. I accepted that. Once you reach a certain level of being discouraged, you plateau. You don’t get worse; you get used to the feeling. It’s how life is.
I loved a girl for the entire six years of primary school, but didn’t believe I had the right to tell her. My constant, day-to-day longing for her drained me.
Then came high school, which meant I could endure it all again at the next level. Though, in high school they can fail you, so it took me eight years to do six years’ schooling.
I tell you this not to get your sympathy. I know full well that countless, countless people have had a much harder time in life. Compared to most children, I was fortunate. I had it good. My father used to say how lucky my sisters and I were, and I could see it was true. I was well fed, well schooled, well loved, well looked after, and I didn’t have to worry about famine, disease or invasions. I knew I was lucky. It all made sense.
What I could not understand was why I wished I had not been born.
I wasn’t depressed. I was not suffering the teenage angst other kids were going through. I was a positive, cheery, cooperative, conscientious lad who doggedly and good-naturedly got through life. I knew I was lucky. I just couldn’t actually feel it.
It was a puzzle I pondered.
I tried hard to be glad about being born. When I had an exceptionally good day I would ask myself, ‘Now, Mark, aren’t you glad you were born?’ The answer was invariably ‘Well, no. Today is a good day, but gee, it would be better if I hadn’t been born.’
Then one day, when I was fifteen years of age, something extraordinary happened. In my life I had been used to failure: with schoolwork, in sport, in health, in love . . . I had accepted failure as a part of who I was, in the same way an Indian ‘untouchable’ accepts his low status – he shrugs and gets on with life. With no resentment I accepted my lot, and remained that cheery, conscientious, good-natured lad described above.
I had been an ardent supporter for a struggling football team called Hawthorn. In 1971 the team won match after match. How could this be? My team, winning? Vicariously I was enjoying success!
I didn’t get my hopes up. I viewed the team’s success like the coach did: one week at a time. But then Hawthorn made the finals! How proud I was!
They progressed to the Grand Final!
It didn’t seem right, but there it was: a whole section in the newspaper devoted to the club. Still, I had not yet tasted success, in any capacity, so to even hope for success was difficult for me.
And then came that extraordinary day in September. That afternoon I listened to the radio commentary of the Grand Final in which my team, Hawthorn, defeated St Kilda to win the premiership! What joy! What inexpressible joy!
A weight was lifted. It sounds absurd, but that win was a turning point in my life. On that day I learned that I, Mark Avery, was not synonymous with failure. I had not been put on this Earth to experience no success.
Admittedly, the success I felt could in no way be attributed to me, yet that didn’t matter. I barracked for Hawthorn and that made me part of the club. Success was ours!
Minutes after the final siren, midst my euphoria, midst the happiest day of my life (up until then) I asked myself the question, ‘Now, Mark, surely it’s good to be alive! Surely you are glad you were born!’
The answer came quickly and easily. ‘No. It would be better had I not been born.’
That did it. I had tried to appreciate my life. I had tried to be grateful I had been born. I had tried to repay my parents for having me and raising me, by feeling grateful for my life. I had failed. If in the midst of euphoria I still could not appreciate how lucky I was to be alive, then I would never ‘get it’. I might as well stop asking the question and just get on with life.
And that’s what I did.
I cannot remember how long my euphoria lasted, but I do know that my allegiance to the Hawthorn Football Club will last my lifetime.
A few years later I left school and had a series of jobs. At twenty-five I enrolled in a university as a mature age student and began an Arts Degree. My sister, Jane, became chronically depressed and she killed herself at the age of thirty.
I felt like I had failed her, so when a few years later I had to write an article about what makes a person happy, I grabbed the opportunity with gusto. But to answer the question I felt obliged to ask myself that older question, the question I hadn’t asked myself since my euphoria in 1971: ‘Mark, are you glad you were born?’
To my astonishment the answer was yes.
Yes??! That prompted another question: ‘Mark, are you happy?’
Huh? Was I actually happy?
Yes, I was.
I looked back to my life as a child. I realised that at the time I had been unhappy, though I hadn’t realised it at the time. Like when I was anxious, I had nothing to compare it with. As I write this I wonder how many children are anxious, or unhappy, or happy, or hateful, or curious, . . . and don’t know it, because they have nothing to compare it with.
Why was I happy now? Was it because I was older? I had heard that theory somewhere. But that wouldn’t explain why some people were happy in their childhood, but unhappy in adulthood.
What had changed with me? What had made me happy?
I had to figure that out, and found that many of the ideas put forth by the happiness gurus didn’t apply to me: I didn’t have close relationships with family or friends; I didn’t have high self-esteem; my life was not filled with love and compassion; I didn’t consciously apply positive thinking; I had no real purpose in life; and, the warm glow I received from being kind had died years ago.
Yet, I was happy.
To write the article I had to ditch much of what the gurus said about happiness, and start afresh. That helped me discover what really does make a person happy. It turns out, I got lucky. I inadvertently had been doing what it takes to make a person happy.
So, what does it take?
It’s obvious when you think about it. See you in Part 1.