What’s more important, happiness or meaning?

The poor bastards in this picture have no idea how their life will actually turn out.

As an American, we are taught that we have the right to pursue happiness.  On this 4th of July, most of us will be out with friends enjoying some of the freedoms afforded us from those who came before and sacrificed for it.  I appreciate many things about my life, and in a great many ways I am lucky to be who I am, live where I live, and enjoy the life I am enjoying.  But even though I have attained all that I have, I will be alone today to reflect, not celebrating.

I have been working on this article for about 2 months now, and it has taken many forms.  Its final version (which you are reading) reflects my sometimes chaotic way of thinking, of competing thoughts, interweaved and a tad disorganized.  And it’s all being tied together by a few common themes.  I figured this was the most natural way for me to express myself as I sound in my own head.  Hopefully, I do a good enough job for it to be readable for you guys.

To open, let me be the first to say that I have had happiness in the past.  This picture is one such example.  But sustaining happiness?  Seems impossible to me today after I reflect on the last 18 years.  Cancer took the person responsible for the vast majority of the joy in my life.  Much of what I worked for was so that WE could be happy.  But life doesn’t always turn out as you plan it.

No one said shit about actually having the right to catch happiness.  Chase it?  Sure.  Knock yourself out.  But we can’t promise anything.  And if you do catch it, it is a slippery thing to hold onto.

And if you don’t find happiness, does that mean you failed at life?  A great many people in this world struggle for their entire lives.  That has to account for something.  What keeps them going?  What makes a person going thru hell keep moving?

As the primary caretaker of a cancer patient, no one tells you shit.  You figure stuff out as you walk in a daze, doing your best to keep your loved one alive, and you hope you wind up on the right side of the statistics.  You aren’t happy, but you have shit to do.  That loved one you are taking care of NEEDS you.  There isn’t someone else coming around to pick up the slack if you can’t meet those needs.

As a widower, no one understands shit.  Death is not dealt with in our society, and people are afraid of it.  They want you to get over your loss because you remind them that this could be them.  You struggle thru periods of mood swings; sometimes you are ok and close to yourself and then there are days you just wake up and want to die.  But I get up, I try to find some purpose.  I deal with it as best as any of us could in the same situation.

I gave up on the pursuit of happiness 9 years ago and strived to simply survive.  For my sake and Felecci’s, I needed to keep my shit together so that she would be cared for as best as possible.

Today, I don’t really FEEL like being happy.  Even though many people would trade their situation with mine, I don’t think happiness makes the last 9 years worth it.  Happiness has no meaning for me anymore.  It’s almost a trap to me, to be taken at a whim by a cruel world.  If I make it the centerpiece of my life, I am opening myself up to be devastated.

Life is hard, full of pain, and you never appreciate it until it is almost over.  The thing that makes it worth it isn’t the periods of happiness so much as the knowledge that when I was NEEDED, I was there.  Before cancer, my greatest personal accomplishment was putting myself thru college and grad school.  Those years of taking care of Felecci dwarfed that struggle.  It wasn’t really till after she died that I started to really have days where I would totally fall apart.

I feel it is important for any able-bodied individual (especially someone who feels they are a “true man”) to have a purpose.  But after Felecci died, I just wanted to crawl under a rock.  I was terrified of putting myself into a situation where I might have to suffer the loss of another person I loved.  I wanted to find something that made me happy and just do it.  For a while, I just did.

See, when she died I told myself I was done.  No more attachments, nothing that the world can take from me.  No more pain.  If the world wants to take me out, fuck it I accept that.  I am not afraid of death, only pain and suffering.  When I get sick, I am going to a right to die state and making sure that the only being in this universe who decides when I go to the afterlife is me.

But I quickly started to get a sinking feeling while doing whatever made me happy on a whim.  I just didn’t see anything in my future that would keep me interested under this scenario long term.  I quickly started to realize I had to find something that would be worth getting up for.  Or else.

I was scared that I would wake up at some point in the future and decide that I didn’t want to do this anymore.  Felecci was scared about this too.  Made me promise not to do something stupid.  And I did promise.  And I meant it.

So, to not make myself out to be a liar, I had to figure out what to do.  If I am not working towards something bigger than my petty concerns, what the hell am I really about?  But what does that really fucking mean?  I had no answers.  But I knew that I had to figure this out.  That is when this article started to go into various drafts.

It started as a question written in different ways: Why even exist, if not to serve and advance some purpose that I feel is important?  So that when I am gone, I will have mattered in some small way the way Felecci matters to me and her family.

That’s what she was to me….my family.  I lost my lover, my best friend, my wife, my confidant, and the person who made me laugh on a daily basis.  All at once.


See, in my early and mid 20’s, I didn’t really want to think about having kids.  I saw the amount of work it takes and felt that was for later in life when I had my shit together.  Felecci and I were doing well and enjoying life and we had some stuff to accomplish before we were ready to settle down.

I lived in a household that went paycheck to paycheck and it was frightening sometimes as a child to be worried that things might not turn out ok.  Money also was the source of most of the fights with my parents.  I didn’t want that for my kids.  I didn’t want to have to raise my kids with that kind of pressure.

I had a plan.  It involved so many variables my friends would laugh at me if I told them.  But I had spent my 20’s making my plans happen, so I was confident I would be able to make this happen too.

We would buy a house in the Clifton, Montclair, Bloomfield area.  Something either with a good school system or taxes that made sense so we could figure out some private schooling into the budget.  Something not too big, I didn’t mind if my kids had to share growing up.  We would have 1-3 kids depending on how my career panned out.  It might be delayed by 2 years if she wanted to go back to school, but we would work out all of the logistics and details.  In the meantime, I would save money like mad until we found a situation that made sense.  I would only reach a bit financially if we found a Tudor that was perfect.  She loved that style of home.

It was all planned in my head.  And then when Felecci was 29; a cancer diagnosis blew it up in the span of 15 minutes.  Our next 10 years were suddenly taken from us.  The life she always wanted was taken from her.  Survival mode kicked in, and the rest you more or less know from my blog.

I had given up on my family growing beyond just us.  I thought I had come to peace with that, feeling that after what I went thru I would be too terrified to sign up for more human beings that I would lose sleep over.  I didn’t want to worry about anyone but myself.

I figured if I find a good woman, I’d be ok with just being an adult without the added trouble of kids.  And for a while I was.  I dated a great woman.  Pretty, easygoing, fun to be around.  But as time went on, a part of me felt empty.  I had the feeling that if I died, I no longer mattered.  I had a lot of dark feelings about this, and I wasn’t happy.  The opposite was starting to happen, I was starting to feel that the direction I was trying to take my life was wrong.  But I didn’t know why.  Nothing ACTUALLY was wrong.  What the fuck?

I’m 37 now and I feel older than ever from a near decade of emotional distress.  I have the financial security, but my life is empty without my wife.  She was my family.  I figured I tried and failed, I might as well enjoy myself.  But honestly, even with a good woman, a good job, and no worries about where my next meal was coming from; it didn’t feel like it was enough.  I wasn’t making a REAL difference, I was coasting.  I didn’t feel like I was giving enough.

But it took a while to put my finger on it.  It was about family, and what I lost the opportunity to have.

As I remember Felecci, and as I see friends with small kids, I can’t help but think about how great of a mother she would have been.  She had such patience and kindness and she was tireless at looking after those she loved.  She would have been the perfect balance to my personality when it came to raising kids.  And it tears me apart that SHE never got that chance.  I was not able to protect my family from the random dangers of the world, to protect her from the plague that is cancer.  Knowing this wasn’t my fault doesn’t make the pain any less potent.

I can’t imagine what some of the folks in my widow/er group go through being both a widow/er and a single parent.  The amount of energy required is insane, the amount of patience it takes to be both the loving parent and the disciplinarian is daunting.  But everyone I talk to above all else loves their children, and in spite of that strain, those kids keep them grounded.  And it is what gets them up in the morning.

I don’t know if I could have done what they do if Felecci and I had kids.  I suppose I would have, but fuck if I don’t imagine it would have sucked as bad or worse than what I already went thru.

I was always thankful we didn’t have kids simply because I wouldn’t want them to go thru life without their mother.  But now that she is gone, I REALLY FUCKING HATE that I never got to see her BE a mother.  It may be the single thing I am mad at God for the most.  I can’t describe with words how much this bothers me.  It is a regret I will take with me to the grave.

And I’m mad that I didn’t get to raise her children.  To tell them how kind and sweet their mother was.  How she kept the worst of my tendencies at bay and made me into a better person.  That life wasn’t fair, but that I would do everything in my power to make them into BETTER versions of us.

And that was what was bothering me.  That we never got to teach our kids the best of what we were and make them into better “us’s”.  That, in a nutshell, is the whole fucking point of the species, isn’t it?.  Its how we live on when we die.  It’s how everyone can contribute to a better world without a 200 IQ or a billion dollars.  Just make someone who is incrementally better than yourself, train them, unleash on the world, and watch them kick ass.  It’s the fucking dream of every parent I got to think, no?

Then sit and watch them surpass you, and fill yourself with the pride that you did well.  Then these kids are going to make even better kids and start the process over again, and so on.  They won’t have to change the world, they will just have to be good people.

And grow old, sit at the head of the table at the family reunion and marvel at the ass-kicking family you started.  A man could die happy if he was leaving behind a legacy like that.

I wish I knew then in my 20’s what I know now.  About how fleeting life is.  I don’t know if I would have brought kids into this world to suffer the loss of their mother to cancer, but god I wish for just one fucking day where I could see what it would have been like to see my beautiful loving wife tend to her own children.  It would make life worth living.  All of the annoyances, struggle, and pain.

Felecci did her part.  While she didn’t get to have kids, her impact on me is immeasurable.  She has tempered my worst impulses and made me a more well-rounded person.  I feel that I also helped her to feel more self-confident and to define her own goals.  She made her own decisions, and even though she was scared, she was still smiling and enjoying the company of her family for as long as she could bear.

I feel like I haven’t yet finished my part. I saw Felecci to the afterlife, but I am still here.  When I die, I need to know that I did the best I could, that I took the opportunity while I could.  I don’t know if I will be able to succeed, as cancer has taught me that my plans can be shot to shit.  But the thought of not having the option to pursue this was turning into a fear of losing the opportunity to.

In the end, I feel that without meaning, I have no purpose.  Without purpose, I don’t need to exist.  This feels so clear and right to me.  I need to have a purpose, or else I might as well have not existed.  I keep tossing that around in my head in various ways like a Rubix Cube, and I can’t find fault with it.  It is a truth, no matter how I spin it.

The thought terrifies me of actually having children.  All I need after losing Felecci is to experience some tragedy with a future child I have yet to meet.  It would be the cherry pit on top of a shit Sunday.  But the thought of giving up the chance also terrifies me.  That I will wake up at 50 with so much regret that I fail to keep the promise I made to Felecci.  If I try and fail, I think I can live with it.   But to not try?  I don’t think I can live with myself if I just quit.

I can’t give up the chance to have everything I fought for when I was in my 20’s.  I really thought I could, and because I was wrong I have caused someone pain.  And I will regret that for a long time.  But I can’t ignore this feeling.  Because if I don’t and I just quit on the idea, I feel the lifetime lack of meaning will be too difficult to carry.

I dread the amount of work involved and the cost of it, and I am terrified I am one more tragedy away from totally falling apart.  But life does not guarantee you happiness.  You have to go out and work for it.  You have to be content with meaning and hope that some happiness is mixed in with the struggle.

I assume this is what you are supposed to figure out in the first year – what is your purpose and what are your goals going forward.  I don’t know if I am doing the right things for my life.  I am stumbling in the dark, feeling my way thru.  I pray and hope that I didn’t cause too much pain to others in my wake in the process.

Life; it is about finding meaning.  So that the pain and suffering we endure was for something.  Enjoy happiness when it comes, but rest your hopes and dreams on finding peace that when it was all done, your life mattered to people.  As I head toward the end of my first year without Felecci, this is the only truth I have found that makes sense of everything.

One thought on “What’s more important, happiness or meaning?

  1. What makes a person going thru hell keep moving? That is a question I’ve asked myself after beating cancer myself. When I was going through treatment, all I had was the memory of my older sister’s awful death from the same disease to visualize. The same question continued to come up after I saw my mom wither away and die a brutal death. It continued to nag at me as my entire life fell apart years after. Somewhere in the bowels of my depression that question continued to plague me. I just ran away. Left my family, friends and career of 16 years to go to China. It was there when I lay on a hard mattress contemplating going to work to a new job I hated in a country that felt void of empathy, when I finally decided I had to make a decision. Do I want to live or die, because existing in misery being pissed off about all that I’ve lossed wasn’t working. I realized that I was just fucking scared. Scared of the cancer coming back, scared that my daughter would fade into a life of struggle with her boyfriend at the time, afraid that there was nothing else for me except fading into obscurity and dying. I was just fucking tired of living in fear. Taking my life was always in the back of my head, but somehow I could never bring myself to end it all (probably because I had a daughter—sigh). So I came back to the states to face my demons and conquer them. The way I felt and the way I lived before was so painful and soul-sucking, I had to figure out what would make me happy and what would give my life meaning. I share all of that to say this; life throws some harsh blows. Seeing how miserable humanity is made me want to help others. Empower them. I’m still figuring out how to do that on a larger scale, but for now I have my blog. Life is more meaningful now and I’m happier although I have less material items. But I had to clean up all the hurt and pain on the inside first. I mean like healing childhood trauma and old negative mindsets, believing that happiness could exist for me. I’ve had to work minimum wage jobs and was homeless at some point on this journey, but somehow kept going. My purpose is what kept me going. The more I healed the more at peace I was and I learned happiness could only be found within first (not that all the days are happy). My heart breaks when I see others in pain. I hate that you have so many regrets. But you were there for Felecci and that mattered. Just like you helped her you can help others. Your story and life experiences can help others. Unfortunately there is no blueprint or map, so stumbling around is what we have to do to figure it out. Our world seems bleak, but I see a better one coming and I now know I want to be a part of a better world—that keeps me going too and gives me great joy. I guess what I’m rambling on about is that meaning and happiness are equally important. You cannot have one without the other because they work together. They fuel each other. I use all the pain and loss from the past to carve a better future and that’s where my focus lies now. If I continue to dwell on what was lost I will sink and drown. It’s a daily choice to stay positive and when I can’t, let those old emotions float through, but I don’t allow them to weigh me down. I hop you have found meaning in your life since you’ve posted this. And I’m confident you will learn how to be happy. Good luck John.


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