By Cynthia Toussaint.
A few years ago I decided to stop looking for happiness. I hadn’t felt that oh-so familiar, pre-pain companion since becoming ill in 1982 and it became patently obvious that happiness was not to be in my future. Instead I set my sights on meaning.
Since then I’ve given a number of media interviews where I’ve shared my mind-shift – and several hosts have expressed deep sadness that I’ve “given up.” To the contrary, while it would be best to have both, research shows that meaning and purpose lead to contentedness which is better for over-all wellness than happiness.
Happiness is a wonderful feeling, but fleeting and transient. On the other hand, contentedness remains steady, providing a strong foundation for beating back the slings and arrows life throws at us. Let’s face it, we women in pain must have resilience and peace of mind to thrive or even make it through another day.
I’m on a mission to continue what I’m doing to bring my life meaning and purpose – and I’m forever on the prowl for more opportunities. What I already have has brought me much self-care satisfaction, but that didn’t come overnight.
For 15 years after becoming ill, I had no identity and my sole purpose was surviving each day. Not much meaning there. Indeed, I was drowning. I didn’t yet realize that finding and contributing to something bigger than myself would give me great purpose – and, indeed, be my salvation.
In 1996, I opened the Los Angeles Times and saw a full-page ad that read, “If you’re an HMO victim and want to speak out, please call this number.” Tears welled as I dialed because I felt a rush of passion for the first time since forever. I quickly became a spokesperson for HMO reform and against the healthcare system that failed and abused me.
In no time I was doing news interviews from my bed, speaking at press conferences and leading HMO protests from my gurney. Best of all, I was hearing from folk all around California thanking me for being their voice. WOW, that changed my life! Pain, fatigue and loneliness still dogged me, but everything seemed lighter and more colorful. Instead of trying to sleep till noon to face another tortured, empty day, I woke with a bounce and desire to make more change.
It was only natural in 2002 that I took the next step by starting For Grace, initially to raise worldwide awareness of CRPS and then to promote wellness for women in pain. Most days, my work involves endless hours of putting out fires with what feels like scant reward. But then I get invited to speak on Capitol Hill to change a bad law or Time magazine calls for my opinion about gender bias in healthcare. Or the mother lode – I get an email from someone who thanks me for inspiring them to move forward, despite their pain. For me, nothing is as rewarding as helping another!
On a local level, there’s abundance. For the last two years, I’ve been a fundraiser for my neighborhood YMCA. This place has been a god-send for my wellness, physically and socially – and it’s a humongous joy to help those who can’t afford a membership (like me when I joined) be welcomed into this healing community.
Then there are my li’l loves. It tickles me to mention that I’ve rescued two sweetest-in-the-world kitties from a nearby animal shelter. Caring for these precious souls helps to save mine every day. And I begin my nightly trek into sandman land with furry cuddles and whisker kisses.
Most personal and looking to the future, my 38-year partner, John, and I are considering adopting a little girl internationally. Though the challenges would be daunting, we have so much love to give and want to provide a warm, secure home to a child who might not have a chance without us. The love in return would be so precious and wide, our lives might well be forever fulfilled.
Yes, I’ve learned that purpose and meaning come from being a part of something bigger than myself. Pain is a wily devil because it pulls us inward and we think we’re helpless and useless. In my opinion, nothing is further from the truth because most work to help others is born from unspeakable pain. Suffering has given us lessons and empathy that others can’t imagine. When we reach beyond ourselves, we gain the opportunity to be contented, peaceful and more well despite the storm.
I’d like to say that happiness is over-rated, but that would be a lie. It’s something I yearn for every day. But it’s elusive amidst the constant pain and heartbreaking loss. Still, there’s something deeper that can bridge us moment to moment.
Purpose. Meaning. It’s out there for each of us to seize.